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The government appears to be disregarding public opinion here and siding with American sentiment in shaping Tokyo’s stance toward a possible U.S.-led war on Iraq.

At a news conference Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said, “U.S. public opinion cannot be ignored,” when asked about surging anti-French sentiment in Washington, where Capitol Hill restaurants renamed “French fries” on menus as “Freedom fries.”

Fukuda made the comment while criticizing French moves to veto a six-point British proposal to force Iraq to disarm. “America has been a country (that is swayed by) public opinion since long ago,” he said. Recent opinion polls in the U.S. show the American population roughly split on whether to support the threatened war with Iraq.

But asked if public opinion in Japan, which is reportedly 80 percent opposed to an attack on Iraq, counts for anything when the government decides whether to express its support in the event of an attack, Fukuda said public opinion in Japan can change over time.

“Public opinion up to now and public opinion in the future may be different,” he said. “We cannot make a decision based on public opinion up until today. There are many times that opinions will change if circumstances change.”

Fukuda’s apparent disregard of domestic public opinion echoes Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s controversial comment last week when he told a Diet committee that respecting public opinion is not always the right course for formulating policies.

These statements could trigger a further fall in support rate for the Koizumi Cabinet, which has relied heavily on public support.

Japan is bolstering its support of the U.S. and British-sponsored resolution before the U.N. Security Council, and Fukuda and Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi on Friday severely criticized France for its rejection of a new British proposal spelling out six steps for Iraq to avert war.

“If France opposes every proposal (submitted to the council), I wonder if it is making any effort to settle the situation,” Kawaguchi told a news conference. “If so, France should seek ways to reach a compromise.”

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin reportedly said France cannot accept Britain’s proposal because it is merely meant to extend by “a few more days” the U.S.-led attack on Iraq.

The worst thing is to send Iraq a “plain and clear” message that the international community is divided on the issue and to allow Baghdad to believe it can still be lax in cooperating with the international arms inspectors, Kawaguchi said.

Fukuda also challenged France to clearly demonstrate how continued inspections would lead to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s unconditional and proactive cooperation.

“France should propose a specific blueprint for an effective inspection,” Fukuda said. “It is deeply regrettable that I can only hear (media reports that) France may exercise its right of veto.”

France should keep in mind that Iraq only began to cooperate with inspectors after 200,000 U.S. troops were deployed around the country, Fukuda went on to say.

“We should not allow Iraq to continue (to disarm) a little at a time,” he said.

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