Published March 18, 2003
TOKYO – Governments across Asia scrambled Tuesday to respond to President Bush's ultimatum to Iraq, while emotions in the world's most populous region ranged from resignation to indignation.
Bush's speech giving Saddam Hussein 48 hours to seek exile or face a U.S.-led invasion deepened a rift over Iraq that has divided the world over the past few months.
Washington's closest allies in Asia, Australia and Japan, rallied behind Bush. But mostly Muslim Indonesia called the ultimatum regrettable, and it came despite a last-ditch diplomatic appeal by China's foreign minister to resolve the crisis peacefully.
The countdown to war came as public opinion across the region remained deeply ambivalent.
"I cannot understand why the United States has to attack Iraq," said Kim Dae-won, a 32-year-old office worker in Seoul, South Korea. "I don't think the war can be justified."
The most solid official expression of support came from Canberra, where Prime Minister John Howard said Tuesday his government would commit the 2,000 Australian military personnel already on standby in the Middle East to any U.S.-led strike aimed at disarming Iraq.
Howard was speaking at a televised news conference just hours after Bush called him to ask Australia to join a "coalition of the willing" despite strong opposition among the Australian public.
"This government has taken a decision which it genuinely believes is in the medium- and longer-term interests of this country," Howard said.
In Tokyo, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi described the ultimatum as "a very difficult decision" for Bush and reiterated his government's position that there was no need for a new U.N. resolution backing a military attack.
"It was a decision that had to be made," Koizumi said. "We support the U.S. position."
Japan's constitution bars its armed forces from fighting in foreign wars, and Koizumi made clear his government was not contemplating military support for a war in Iraq. But Japanese media have reported that the government may send troops on a humanitarian mission to help refugees in neighboring countries.
Opposition was expected from Muslim countries and from China, which has insisted that the Iraqi crisis be defused through diplomacy.
China's new premier called for "every effort" to avoid a conflict and said that U.N. weapons inspections must continue even as he acknowledged that the situation appeared dire.
"The arrow has already been placed on the bow," said Wen Jiabao in a speech on his second full day as China's prime minister. "As long as there is one glimmer of hope we will not give up our efforts for a peaceful settlement."
In the hours before those comments, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing spoke on the telephone with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw asking them to be "prudent in deciding whether or not to start a war," state media reported.
In Indonesia, the world's most populous Islamic nation, a government spokesman lamented the apparent breakdown of diplomacy.
"We regret the fact that the speech gave the impression that diplomacy has run its course," said Marty Natalegawa. "We still believe that a solution to the crisis should be found within the U.N. Security Council."