The Air Self-Defense Force unit flying transport operations between Kuwait and Iraq may be withdrawn by the end of the year, the government said Thursday.
The ASDF and a Ground Self-Defense Force contingent were dispatched to the Middle East to support U.S.-led coalition forces in January 2004. The ground forces left in July 2006. The ASDF exit would conclude Japan’s first military deployment to a region experiencing combat since the war.
“The purpose of the special law for Iraqi reconstruction has been fulfilled,” in light of the improvement in safety there, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said at a regular news conference.
Machimura said the prospects of Japan withdrawing have already been discussed with the United Nations and the United States, which has been making noises about pulling out 8,000 of its troops.
At a separate news conference, Defense Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said the government was thinking of withdrawing the ASDF unit because security in Iraq has improved, adding that it was “favorable” for the international community to shift antiterrorism efforts to Afghanistan, where U.S. plans are already under way to add more forces.
Hayashi said Japan has received the consent of the Iraq government for the withdrawal, which will coincide with the expiration of the U.N. resolution that authorizes deployment of multinational forces in the war-torn state, he said.
“The ASDF did an extremely good job” in Iraq, the minister said, emphasizing that no major mishaps occurred despite the danger in the area.
“The timetable for withdrawal is to be discussed, but will ensure complete safety” for the unit and the Iraqis, Hayashi said.
Thursday’s announcement, made simultaneously by Machimura, Hayashi and Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura, comes after U.S. President George W. Bush revealed plans to withdraw 8,000 troops from Iraq earlier this month. The ASDF began its mission in March 2004, transporting supplies and personnel to Iraq on behalf of the U.S.-led coalition and U.N. troops.
According to the Defense Ministry, 768 trips had been flown by three C-130 transports as of Wednesday to move personnel and 640 tons of supplies. The trips were made from a Kuwait air base to Iraqi cities, including Baghdad and Arbil.
At present, the mission involves 210 ASDF members, the ministry said.
Experts on the Middle East said Japan’s withdrawal was imminent because of the expiration of the U.N. resolution. They also questioned the effectiveness of the ASDF mission and its work in Iraq.
“The contribution that the ASDF made to safety in Iraq is questionable,” Motohiro Ono, a senior fellow at the Middle East Research Institute of Japan, said, noting the air force unit was restricted to missions with extremely low risk.
F-15 pilot ejects
An Air Self-Defense Force F-15 fighter jet went down in the Sea of Japan off Yamaguchi Prefecture during a Thursday afternoon training flight due to engine trouble, but the pilot was able to eject and was rescued, the ASDF and the Japan Coast Guard said.
The F-15 sank into the sea after the accident around 4:20 p.m. some 30 km southwest of Mishima Island, the ASDF said, adding the pilot who dropped into the sea by parachute sustained no major injuries. The jet had taken off from the ASDF’s Tsuiki base in Fukuoka Prefecture at 3:43 p.m.