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Iraqi city of Samawah, where GSDF was deployed in 2004, looked like war zone: reporter

A Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) member is seen on guard duty at the gate of an GSDF camp in Samawah, Iraq, after what appears to have been a mortar attack, in this file photo taken April 8, 2004. (Mainichi)

OSAKA -- Daily logs kept by Japan's Ground Self-Defense Forces (GSDF) who were deployed to the southern Iraqi city of Samawah to participate in reconstruction and support efforts were released April 16.

The documents, whose existence the Defense Ministry initially denied, describes the deteriorating security situation in Samawah, and a tense state of affairs that could hardly allow the city to be called a non-combat zone.

I reported from Samawah in 2004, which corresponds to the early days of the GSDF's activities there, and recall the crumbling public security situation and journalists being cut off from information from the GSDF. There is a possibility that the SDF will be deployed overseas again in the future, and the release of the logs should be used as the impetus for a thorough investigation into what happened in Iraq over a decade ago.

On April 8, 2004, about a week after I arrived in Samawah, the Japanese government issued an evacuation advisory due to worsening security conditions in the surrounding areas. A colleague -- a photographer -- and I evacuated from a hotel in Samawah to the GSDF's encampment.

Having temporarily fallen ill, I was lying on a bed in the medical aid station, hooked up to an IV drip, when a young male SDF member, also resting on a bed in the aid station, began speaking to me in a friendly tone. "It's like we're war buddies, isn't it?" he said. I can still hear his voice in my head. From his use of the term "war buddies," I'm sure that he was aware that he was already in a war zone.

On April 7, shortly before we evacuated to the GSDF camp, there had been a mortar attack near the encampment for the first time. The following day, it emerged that three Japanese civilians, including volunteer aid workers, had been taken hostage near Fallujah, a city in central Iraq, by armed insurgents. Once we arrived at the GSDF camp following a strict check of our vehicle and full-body pat-downs, we were ordered to stay in freight containers and prohibited from conducting any reporting from the camp.

On the evening of April 9, the blare of sirens was heard across the GSDF encampment. Information warning of an attack appeared to have come in, and a massive number of SDF personnel with guns stood guard. Journalists were told to close the doors to our containers and instructed not to leave for any reason. I secretly opened the door to my container, set up a satellite phone outside, and contacted the Mainichi Newspapers' Tokyo Head Office. "The situation is highly charged," I reported to my colleagues.

The GSDF had initially been taking part in bank protection work along rivers in Samawah, but as the security situation declined, GSDF troops retreated from such local aid activities. At that point, the GSDF's "reconstruction support activities" in "non-combat zones" had already ceased to exist.

Ultimately, as the Japanese government did not lift the evacuation advisory and the GSDF continued to ban journalists from conducting any reporting from the camp, we were forced to evacuate to neighboring Kuwait in mid-April.

Ever since mid-April 2004, when the media pulled out all together from Samawah, there has been no full-fledged on-the-ground reporting from the city, and many of the details of what the GSDF did there remain a mystery. (Japanese original by Ken Uzuka, Osaka Regional News Department)

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