First Dutch Casualty in Iraq

It has finally happened, but you knew it was only a matter of time: the first Dutch soldier has fallen in Iraq, just yesterday (Monday). And the timing was significant, if only as a reflection of the breakdown of what public order there was in much of that country over the past few weeks. It might be even more significant when you consider that a decision is coming due as to whether to extend the deployment of Dutch troops in Iraq after the 17 July end of their current mandate there. Doubts about doing that were starting to surface in the Dutch legislature, even before this latest, fatal incident.

The similar reports you often find in the various Dutch newspapers makes it clear how often they get their reports from the same sources, so we might as well take up the account given in the Christian Reformatorisch Dagblad. Like the other reports, the RD won’t give the casualty’s name – but why do we need that, anyway? – but says he was a 36-year-old “sergeant-1” (i.e. a senior non-commissioned officer), a member of the luchtmobiele brigade or “airmobile brigade” that is now performing the occupations duties in the sector the Dutch have been assigned that includes the city of As-Samawah. It was there, on a bridge across the Euphrates river, that grenades thrown from a passing scooter exploded and inflicted on both the sergeant-1 and his 20-year-old colleague wounds that made it imperative to evacuate them immediately to the field hospital at the Dutch Camp Smitty. It was there that the sergeant-1 died, while the younger soldier is now in stable condition. The RD notes that this was the first Dutch combat fatality since one Raviv van Renssen with DUTCHBAT perished in the Srebrenica area back in the summer of 1995.

Both Dutch premier Balkenende and defense minister Kamp responded to the incident by cutting short their May vacations to hurriedly return to The Hague. Naturally, they both issued statements regretting the incident; so did the AFMP, the Dutch soldiers’ union, while warning that more casualties of this type must be expected.

NRC ANALYSIS

As the sole remaining evening newspaper (yet still the Netherlands’ leading general-interest daily in the eyes of many), the NRC Handelsblad operates to a different rhythm from its competitors, and this has held true here. The incident had not even happen as yesterday’s NRC issue came out, and so it had to be left to the other Dutch papers to report it this morning. On the other hand, the NRC has now had the time to examine the political impact of this death, which it does in this evening’s edition in a pair of insightful articles. One is a news article reporting on the reaction within the Tweede Kamer, the lower (and dominant) house of the Dutch parliament: Doubts in the Kamer Grow About Mission in Iraq. Of course, all the political parties found the Dutch soldier’s death “shocking”; the difference in their reactions arose in the meaning they attached to it. Most parties in fact viewed the death as a reason to start to have serious second-thoughts about that upcoming decision about whether to extend the deployment of Dutch troops. Only the VVD and the LPF stood firm (“LPF” standing for “List Pim Fortuyn,” the party supposedly carrying on the legacy of that assassinated Dutch politician).

As the accompanying analysis article by Raymond van den Boogaard makes clear, there are at least two interesting things about this: 1) The doubters included representatives from both D66 and CDA – which are members of the current government coalition! (In fact, the CDA is the party of premier Balkenende.) 2) But not to worry (?), because it is not the Tweede Kamer which has to make the decision about whether the Dutch stay or whether they go: that is a decision for the government, i.e. premier Balkenende’s cabinet, and the Tweede Kamer will only get to uitspreken over it after it is made – basically “pronounce” on it. Of course, the way that decision goes can go far towards influencing who ends up in the Tweede Kamer after the next elections, depending on how it ends up matching the mood of the Dutch electorate, but for the short term this is a decision for the executive branch.

CAUGHT BETWEEN US AND UN

Van den Boogaard’s analysis goes on to make a number of other interesting points. The pressure that is making the idea of a Dutch withdrawal difficult to bear, almost no matter what happens to the Dutch troops, is of course coming mainly from Washington, where the Bush administration is keen to keep the number of countries bailing out of troop commitments to Iraq to a minimum after the highly-publicized withdrawal of Spanish (and some Central American) troops that is now ongoing. And indeed, the desire to keep solidarity with the Americans is identified by the NRC as one major axis of long-standing Dutch foreign policy. But another important element has always been support for strengthening the role of the United Nations, and that throws a twist into the situation. After all, the Spanish, for example, made the continuing presence of their troops in Iraq (ostensibly) conditional on the United Nations taking over authority there, and justified their decision to withdraw by doubts that that would ever be allowed to happen. In juggling their dedication to the US versus that to the UN the Dutch could theoretically go all this way down the spectrum and behave similarly, but at this point that still seems a doubtful course of action. A further complicating factor, of course, is the growing sense that, with things in Iraq having deteriorated so seriously lately, the UN may not even want to become so deeply involved even if permitted to do so by the Americans – a reluctance which seems to be slowly taken up now by the Dutch parliament in the wake of this first fatality.

Despite the confusion of coalition parties seeming to break ranks in the wake of the soldier’s death, things seem to be fundamentally in order. The main opposition party, the PvdA or “Party of Labor” continues to accuse the government of schoothondjesgedraag – i.e. acting as the American’s “lapdog.” The government generally prefers instead to speak of bruggenbouwen, or “bridge-building,” i.e. continuing in support of American policy in Iraq to help heal the political divides that opened up across the Atlantic in the run-up to the War in Iraq itself. Ultimately, “according to the good Hague prescription, the decision will be delayed as long as possible,” van den Boogard concludes, to probably around mid-June. No derisive snorts, please; recent press accounts make clear that this tactic of “delay-and-maybe-some-solution-will-turn-up” is equally at home in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon.

P.S.: Maybe to put all of this in a little perspective, we have the headline from the article in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten about this: Dutch Soldier Among 17 Killed in Iraq. In other words, at least 16 others were also killed elsewhere on Monday, including three or four in a marketplace explosion up in the Kurdish city of Kirkuk and at least 13 of Muqtadar as-Sadr’s “Mahdi Army” in Najaf and Kufa. But that’s enough for now; we’ll go more deeply into the Danish press tomorrow.

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