British troop adjustment no factor for SDF: Aso

by Reiji Yoshida

Japan’s decision on when to pull its troops from southern Iraq will not be affected by Britain’s announcement Monday that it will scale down its military presence in the country, Foreign Minister Taro Aso said Tuesday.

Instead, political developments in Iraq — particularly the establishment of a legitimate government — will be a key factor in deciding when to withdraw the Ground Self-Defense Force contingent, Aso said at a news conference.

“(Britain’s decision) coming at this time won’t affect us,” he said.

British Defense Secretary John Reid said Monday the British contingent will be reduced to 7,200 troops from 8,000 in May, sparking speculation that it would mark the start of a gradual British withdrawal from Iraq.

Japan has said its withdrawal will be timed closely with the moves of the British, who are in charge of maintaining security in southern Iraq, including in Samawah, a relatively safe area where the GSDF has been stationed to conduct humanitarian aid.

But at the same time, Aso admitted Tokyo is finding it very difficult to decide on an exit date because of Iraq’s inability to form a legitimate government despite the parliamentary election in December.

“They still can’t form a Cabinet, which indicates there is great difficulty” in the political process, Aso said. Japanese officials had been hinting at the possibility of starting the exit in March and completing the withdrawal by the end of May.

But senior government officials have stopped talking about a specific exit date, indicating Japan may have to remain deployed despite the incessant sectarian violence and deteriorating security in other parts of Iraq.

“We had believed that a government would be formed by the end of March or in April, but that goal has moved away,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Without a clear prospect for setting up a stable government, Tokyo will find it difficult to leave, the official said, adding that the U.S. wants the GSDF to remain but is trying not to force Tokyo’s cooperation.

A top Defense Agency official said Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will have the final say on the matter.

“He is the top commander of the Self-Defense Forces,” the official said. “It is the prime minister who decides in the end.”