Japan's Cabinet votes on extending military mission to Iraq

Japan's ruling party on Thursday approved the extension of the country's troop deployment in Iraq for one year, paving the way for the government to prolong Tokyo's largest military mission since World War II. The Cabinet was vote on the plan later in the day, said Liberal Democratic Party spokesman Shigenobu Tamura. Approval was expected after the government gets a go-ahead from the LDP's main coalition partner.

Japan deployed about 600 troops to the southern Iraqi city of Samawah on a humanitarian mission in early 2004 as part of the U.S.-led coalition. The one-year renewal would extend the deployment, 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 local media have reported that Tokyo intends to pull out around the middle of next year as opposition to the mission rises in Japan. Eager to raise Japan's international profile, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government has been a strong supporter of the U.S.-led invasion and has argued strenuously to keep the troops there to help reconstruct the country.

Koizumi suggested Thursday that the Japanese public supported the deployment.

"I assume that the people's estimation of the posting of troops overseas has grown to a high level, since the people are watching their activities," he said in a speech at the Defense Agency. The mission, however, has never been popular at home, facing criticism that it violates the country's 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 suffered 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, but that has not been confirmed by Japanese officials.

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.

LDP members at the meeting Wednesday to finalize the revised dispatch plan said the government should consider withdrawing the Japanese troops during the next year of the deployment, Kyodo News agency 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 efforts to bolster Japan's international diplomatic role and loosen controls on the military so that it can join more peacekeeping missions and cooperate more actively with the United States, reports the AP. I.L.

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