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The government-sponsored bill approved Friday by the Cabinet to dispatch elements of the Self-Defense Forces to help rebuild postwar Iraq is the latest legislation defining the SDF’s roles overseas.

The bill would allow the SDF, for the first time, to set foot on foreign soil without the consent of the host country.

Critics have been quick to point out that it is yet another way to deploy the SDF overseas, following the 2001 antiterrorism law that enabled Maritime Self-Defense Force ships to provide fuel to U.S.-led forces fighting in Afghanistan.

The antiterror law, in turn, paved the way for the SDF to participate in overseas missions that went beyond the framework of U.N. peacekeeping operations, which the military was authorized to take part in under the 1992 peacekeeping operations law.

A main focus of the criticism is whether the government has properly assessed the local situation and the safety of the service members taking part.

“I am rather suspicious about setting a general framework (for an SDF dispatch) at this stage,” acknowledged one high-ranking Defense Agency official. “The situations (the units will face in Iraq) are expected to be more complicated than those assumed under the antiterrorism law.

“In a sense, the antiterrorism law was rather simple, as it was mainly about the SDF providing fuel at sea. This time, however, it involves land operations, and security is still very much in question.”

The government has sent a fact-finding mission to Iraq and argues that there is a need for the SDF to help maintain peace there.

However, Takemasa Moriya, head of the agency’s Defense Policy Bureau, said earlier this week that actual dispatch of SDF units would come this fall at the earliest due to the need to sign status-of-forces agreements with neighboring nations, and some agency officials say they fear the situation in Iraq may have changed in this time.

But while the SDF personnel in Iraq are expected to perform more dangerous and difficult tasks than on previous peacekeeping missions, they will still be bound by the peacekeeping law’s requirement that weapons only be used in self-defense and in defense of people in their charge.

While the original government draft of the bill had a provision stipulating that disposal of weapons of mass destruction will be one of the SDF’s main tasks in Iraq, no such arms have been found. That provision was deleted from the bill in final negotiations between the government and the ruling coalition.

The Defense Agency said the SDF can analyze and seal chemical weapons, but it must rely on private chemical plants for final disposal. It also said the SDF has no ability to handle biological weapons.

“This bill is unrealistic,” Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Taro Kono said after being briefed on the details by a government official. “The starting point of (discussions) should be how Japan can help Iraq rebuild. But to me, the bill appears to be based on the premise that the SDF should be sent.”

But despite the concerns and criticism, the government has a strong desire to get the legislation passed — something observers say stems from its desire to be visible and not just provide financial support, as it did in the 1991 Gulf War.

Many government officials have said Tokyo suffered diplomatic humiliation by failing to dispatch personnel and merely providing money while the war was ongoing.

To avoid the same disgrace, it began contemplating how to assist in postwar Iraq around the end of last year — long before the war even started.

Coupled with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s eagerness to respond to U.S. President George W. Bush’s request that Japan show “visible cooperation” in Iraq’s postwar reconstruction, the government has its sights set on swift Diet passage of the bill, which was hastily finalized after passage of separate war-contingency bills — disregarding such controversial questions as whether the restrictions on the use of weapons should be eased.

“We do not want to damage (the chances of passing) the bill with lengthy Diet deliberation,” a senior Foreign Ministry official admitted. “Speed is what is required.”

The current Diet session is scheduled to end Wednesday, but will probably be extended to debate the bill.

But for Ground Self-Defense Force elements that would be sent to Iraq if the bill is passed, the mission may be fraught with danger. Armed Iraqis have killed U.S. soldiers in recent weeks.

On Thursday, Hajime Massaki, GSDF chief of staff, said, “I hope the units to be dispatched will be given the necessary conditions that enable them to perform their duties confidently.”

Tokyo International University professor Tetsuo Maeda, an expert on defense issues, said the GSDF has no choice but to demand ways to defend themselves, including armored vehicles and protective gear against chemical and biological weapons, if they are to work in an unstable area like Iraq. But he warned that such protection could change the nature of the reconstruction assistance role pushed by the government.

“If the government wants to show the flag, why doesn’t it support nongovernmental organizations already working in Iraq and have them carry Japanese flags?” Maeda asked. “It does not make sense from an international standpoint to debate where the combat areas are and whether we are just offering logistic support.”

Meanwhile, experts are also critical of the way in which the government makes and revises laws whenever it considers it necessary to dispatch the SDF overseas.

Last year, a private advisory panel to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda compiled a report calling for comprehensive legislation to set the ground rules for Japan’s international peace activities.

The panel, headed by former U.N. Undersecretary General Yasushi Akashi, also recommended that restrictions on the SDF’s use of arms be eased, and that they be allowed to participate in multilateral peace operations.

Panel member Tetsuya Nishimoto, a former head of the SDF Joint Staff Council, said the lack of such legislation on overseas missions has always forced the government to start debate with such basic issues as their legality under Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution, effectively hampering the formulation of substantive policies.

“Ground rules such as those on arms use must be debated thoroughly in advance,” he said. “Then the decision to send the SDF (on peace missions) will go more smoothly once the government chooses this course and the Diet endorses it.”

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