WITHDRAWAL COVERAGE LIMITED

GSDF Iraq troop exit came with media gag order

Kyodo

The first group of Ground Self-Defense Force troops to exit the Iraq city of Samawah, left Kuwait for Japan on Wednesday morning amid a media blackout over the withdrawal.

A chartered private aircraft carrying the roughly 200 GSDF troops left an air base in Kuwait in the morning.

The rest of the troops are expected to return home over the next week.

Approximately 600 GSDF troops moved from Samawah to Kuwait in six groups between July 7 and Monday and are undergoing health checks at a U.S. camp in Kuwait. The media were allowed to cover the arrival of the final group of GSDF troops, who were welcomed by defense chief Fukushiro Nukaga during his visit to Kuwait.

Shortly after 5 a.m. Wednesday, a convoy of buses left a hotel in Kuwait City where the first group had been resting up for the long journey home.

The plane left from the base located at Kuwait International Airport about 3 1/2 hours later.

“The time has finally come. I miss green space in Japan because I was in the desert for a long time,” a GSDF member waiting to return home said at the U.S. camp in Kuwait.

The Defense Agency told the media Tuesday it would not be allowed to cover the return of GSDF to Japan until they were back in Japan.

The agency said the decision was to ensure the troops’ safety.

At a briefing in Kuwait, defense officials told the media that coverage of the departure of the first group of GSDF troops from Kuwait would be arranged but that they were not to report the story until the troops arrive in Japan.

This is the second time the agency has restricted media coverage of the GSDF’s withdrawal from Iraq. On July 7, Director General Fukushiro Nukaga abruptly called off an agreement between the agency and its press club about covering the troops’ arrival in Kuwait from Samawah.

Under the agreement, the media were allowed to report the arrival of both the first and last groups of ground troops from Iraq, but Nukaga decided the agency would not provide information or footage of the GSDF withdrawal until all personnel had arrived safely in Kuwait, due to security concerns.

A senior agency official explained the decision to restrict coverage as a step to prevent airports or airlines from receiving harassing telephone calls, including bomb threats.

The GSDF troops had engaged since early 2004 in a humanitarian and reconstruction mission in and around Samawah, rebuilding roads, schools and hospitals, and supplying clean water.

The troops began withdrawing from Samawah to coincide with the transfer of security responsibilities in the region from British and Australian forces to Iraqi forces.

The GSDF’s withdrawal from the region is expected to be finished by the end of July.