Japan may expand military transport flights in Iraq

Japan may keep three air force transport planes in the Middle East to support the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq even if it pulls out all its ground troops, a newspaper reported Monday.

In response to requests from the United States, Tokyo will also likely expand the daily missions flown by the C-130 transport aircraft assigned to a base in Kuwait, although the flights will likely be to Qatar rather than Baghdad as Washington had wanted, the national Yomiuri newspaper said, citing unidentified Japanese government sources.

A spokeswoman for the air force could not immediately comment and said she was investigating the report. Washington asked Tokyo to add flights to Baghdad and other points in Iraq to make up for the expected withdrawal around May 2006 of 550 soldiers stationed in the southern city of Samawah on a non-combat mission to purify water, build schools and carry out other humanitarian tasks, the newspaper said.

Tokyo, however, was looking into adding flights to the U.S. regional command headquarters in Qatar, it said. The discussion comes as the government weighs extending the deployment in Samawah for a year after legislation enabling it expires Dec. 14.

The Japanese air force planes deliver supplies and personnel to Talil and Basra in southern Iraq from their base in Kuwait, which is staffed by about 200 personnel, the newspaper said, AP reports.

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