Another year eyed for SDF’s Iraq tour

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The current one-year deployment of Japanese troops in Iraq will be extended by another year if the security situation there does not deteriorate further, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said Tuesday.

“We think we need to keep actively engaged (in reconstruction operations in Iraq) if the current situation continues,” the top government spokesman said at a news conference, adding that the current operation plan expires on Dec. 14.

The government will make its final decision after comprehensively examining the security situation and progress in postwar reconstruction efforts, he said.

Hosoda’s caution reflects government concern over the security situation in the war-ravaged country, where insurgent and terrorist attacks have not abated.

Any Japanese troop casualties would probably deal a heavy blow to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who dispatched the troops in January at a time when public opinion was sharply divided over the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq.

“It’s wonderful that (the SDF units) have been working for local people without any serious problems so far,” Hosoda said.

About 600 Ground Self-Defense Force troops are deployed in Samawah, a southern Iraqi city, engaged in a humanitarian mission. Another 200 Air Self-Defense Force airmen are working in Kuwait to support transport operations for the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq.

One major source of concern for Japan and its troops in Iraq is a plan by the Netherlands, which has been in charge of maintaining security in Samawah, to withdraw all its troops from Iraq in March.

If the Dutch troops are withdrawn, either British or American forces are expected to be deployed to Samawah — a situation that Japanese officials fear could fuel local sentiments against the coalition forces, and possibly the Japanese troops working with them.

Due to the constraints of the war-renouncing Constitution, Japanese troops are not allowed to use force, other than strictly in self-defense.

The issue was taken up during talks Tuesday between Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba and visiting British Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon.

Hoon told Ishiba that Britain will try to persuade the Netherlands to reconsider its withdrawal plan, according to a Defense Agency official who briefed reporters. Hoon did not mention which country would provide troops to take the place of the Dutch forces if they eventually pull out, the official said.

It is widely believed, however, that British troops would be deployed in Samawah if this scenario were to arise.