The government submitted a revised bill to the Diet on Friday that would enable the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces personnel to Iraq to carry out reconstruction work, after excising the disposal of weapons of mass destruction from the SDF’s mission from the initial draft.
The bill was approved at an extraordinary Cabinet meeting after the Liberal Democratic Party endorsed it earlier in the day on condition that the clause on weapons of mass destruction be removed.
LDP lawmakers demanded the removal of the clause at an Executive Council meeting, saying that no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons have been discovered in Iraq and that the SDF does not have the capabilities to dispose of them, party members said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said the government agreed to remove the WMD portion as there is no current U.N. Security Council resolution seeking international support for efforts to dispose of weapons of mass destruction.
Asked why the government included this passage in the first place, Fukuda said it had “anticipated” such work would be needed upon the discovery of such weapons.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said the omission simply reflects debate within the LDP.
“It’s the result of the party’s discussions and I am pleased that they approved (the bill) swiftly from a grand perspective,” Koizumi told reporters in the evening.
Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba said the government will consider ways to dispose of weapons of mass destruction at a later date, if the need is identified in Iraq and the international community requests help.
The government also sent a bill to extend the antiterrorism law by two years after it expires in November. The extension is to enable Japan to continue providing fuel to U.S.-led forces operating in Afghanistan.
With the submission of the Iraqi bill, the political focus will shift to the length of the extension of the Diet session beyond the current session’s scheduled close on Wednesday.
Koizumi is likely to discuss the matter with the leaders of his coalition partners on Monday.
But the final decision will be a political tug of war within the LDP, as Koizumi’s critics in the party are opposed to a long extension and hope to force a Cabinet reshuffle before the party’s presidential election in September.
Under the bill, the SDF personnel would provide logistic support for U.S.-led forces in Iraq, such as transportation and supply of food, water and fuel. They would also provide relief materials and medical assistance to Iraqi people, and rebuild destroyed infrastructure.
Since Koizumi declared his intention to pass the new law last Saturday, it took less than a week for the government to win endorsement for the legislation from the three ruling parties.
However, the process was not as smooth as the government had hoped, as opposition mounted within the LDP against the strict rules on the use of weapons by SDF personnel, as well as the disposal of weapons of mass destruction.
SDF personnel are allowed to only use weapons in self-defense and the defense of others under their protection.
The rules are designed to avoid the dispatch of the forces contradicting the war-renouncing Constitution, but critics say they may put SDF personnel in danger as they are banned from firing warning shots or using weapons in other situations that hinder their operations in the field.
The LDP demanded that further debate be made on this point during the Diet’s deliberation of the bill.
The government claims that the SDF personnel would not be put in danger because they would operate only in “noncombatant areas” under the new law. The Diet, however, is likely to seize on where the line depicting “safe places” should be drawn, as sporadic attacks against the U.S.-led troops still continue in Iraq.
Fukuda has said the government will send inspection teams to Iraq to identify the exact areas of operations and assess specific needs before actually dispatching the SDF personnel.
Other likely points of debate include the clause in the bill that does not rule out transportation of U.S. troops’ weapons and ammunition.
The bill only says the SDF would “not supply” weapons and ammunition or supply fuel for aircraft preparing for combat operations.
While the government and the ruling parties say it is impractical to separate weapons and ammunition from other materials, opposition parties are likely to demand the exclusion of weapons and ammunition, as they did when deliberating the antiterrorism law.
“Transportation of weapons and ammunition is permissible under the bill, but whether they actually do it is a political decision,” said one senior government official, suggesting that the ruling parties may yield on this point.
The bill stipulates that the new law would be effective for four years and could be extended. But the law’s duration may also be shortened to two to three years as a result of deliberations in the Diet.
Under the bill, the dispatch of SDF personnel would have to be approved by the Diet within 20 days of the dispatch order being given. Opposition parties may demand a reduction in the number of days or make it subject to prior approval to strengthen civilian control.
DPJ’s Okada cautious
Katsuya Okada, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, expressed caution Friday over a bill to enable the Self-Defense Forces to be dispatched to Iraq.
“It’s hard to find specific needs for the work of the SDF” in Iraq, Okada said.
He said his party, the largest opposition force, has not formally decided whether to support the government-sponsored bill.
How the DPJ will react to the bill has been the focus of attention in the Diet, as the party is considered to be key to the smooth deliberation and passage of the bill.
Okada also cast doubts on the legitimacy of the U.S.-led war on Iraq. The DPJ has been opposed to the war due to the lack of a U.N. resolution.
The Japanese Communist Party and Social Democratic Party released statements expressing opposition to the bill.
They say the SDF’s missions would be fully integrated into those of the U.S. occupation forces, which they charge launched the war in violation of international laws. The dispatch would also violate Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution, they said.
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