Japan's Cabinet to meet on extending military mission to Iraq

Japan's Cabinet on Thursday was set to approve the widely expected extension of its dispatch of troops to Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition there into 2006, prolonging Tokyo's largest military mission since World War II.

Japan has had about 600 troops in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah for humanitarian work since early 2004. The one-year renewal expected to come Thursday would extend the troops' mission _ due to expire next week _ to Dec. 14, 2006.

The extension, however, does not require the troops to remain in Iraq for the full year, and media reports say Tokyo intends to pull the troops out around the middle of next year as opposition to the mission rises in Japan.

A ruling Liberal Democratic Party policy committee finalized the government's plan on Wednesday, and the proposal was making its way through the LDP bureaucracy Thursday before full party and Cabinet approval later in the day.

Eager to raise Japan's international profile, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government has been a vocal supporter of the U.S.-led invasion and has argued strenuously to keep the troops there to help reconstruct the country.

The mission, however, has never been popular in Japan, facing criticism that it violates the pacifist constitution. Many fear the deployment has made the troops and Japan itself a target for terrorists, or that the troops will get drawn into the fighting.

That opposition has grown as security deteriorates in Iraq. The Japanese camp in Samawah has been targeted by sporadic attacks, but no Japanese soldier has been hurt. Rock-throwing demonstrators near Samawah over the weekend demanded a Japanese withdrawal.

Speculation has been running high in Japan that Tokyo will pull its non-combat troops out as the British and Australian soldiers protecting them also withdraw. Japanese officials have not confirmed that, however.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari visited Japan this week and urged Koizumi to extend the non-combat mission. Koizumi told reporters Wednesday that he would take his talks with al-Jaafari into account in making his decision.

Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga made a rare trip to Iraq over the weekend to survey the troops, and he declared Samawah to be relatively safe. The visit was apparently aimed at calming Japanese nerves ahead of the dispatch extension.

Party members at the meeting Wednesday to finalize the revised dispatch plan said the government should also decide on the withdrawal of Japanese troops during the next year of the deployment, Kyodo said.

Questions about the effectiveness of the deployment have also come up. With the government eager to avoid any incident, Japanese troops have been largely confined to the safety of their base, limiting their humanitarian duties.

Japan's troops are tasked with rebuilding schools, purifying water and conducting other reconstruction work. The deployment has been a cornerstone of Koizumi's effort to bolster Japan's international diplomatic role and loosen controls on the country's military to join more peacekeeping missions and cooperate more actively with the United States.

Japan provided maritime logistic support for the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. That mission was extended by parliament in October. Japanese cargo planes are also flying support missions in the Middle East.

In tandem with the deployments, the government has been campaigning stridently to win a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, has ramped up military cooperation with the United States, and is pushing to make the Defense Agency into a full-fledged ministry, the AP reports.

Japanese military action has been strictly limited by the U.S.-drafted 1947 constitution, which bans Japan from offensive military action. The Koizumi government is working on a revision of the charter to loosen those controls. A.M.

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