Despite Diet approval of a bill to allow the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces personnel to Iraq on Saturday, the government continued to wrestle with exactly when and where the SDF should be sent.

“It is possible that Japan may not send the SDF to Iraq at all, depending on the security situation,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said during the final debate on the bill at the Upper House Foreign and Defense Affairs Committee on Friday.

Under the legislation, which will be valid for four years, SDF units will provide logistic support for U.S.-led forces maintaining security in Iraq, provide humanitarian assistance to Iraqis and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. The dispatch must be approved by the Diet within 20 days of the dispatch order.

The new law stipulates that the SDF’s operations be limited to “noncombat” areas to avoid situations in which SDF personnel would be pressed to use their military might — a sensitive issue under the war-renouncing Constitution.

However, it is hard to determine where noncombat areas are. The top U.S. commander in Iraq recently acknowledged that coalition forces are facing a “guerrilla-type war situation” all over Iraq.

During the bill’s deliberation in the House of Councilors, the government admitted that its initial security assessment was overly optimistic.

“The security situation in Iraq has not improved as much as we would have hoped,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told the committee on foreign and defense affairs last week.

When asked by Naoto Kan, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, to name at least one noncombat area that would be safe enough for SDF personnel, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi admitted that he had no idea.

“Are there currently such places as noncombat areas in Iraq?” Kan barked at Koizumi during a one-on-one debate in the Diet on Wednesday. “If there are, please name at least one.”

“There is no way I should know where the combat and noncombat areas are,” Koizumi responded, “but I do believe noncombat areas exist.”

The government’s initial plan was to send about 1,000 troops to Iraq as early as October, after sending a fact-finding mission there in summer.

That scenario now appears to be under review. Koizumi said last week he has “no time frame in mind” for the dispatch. The SDF will be sent at an appropriate time after a thorough security assessment, he said.

Ruling party lawmakers are also inclined to delay the dispatch until after the next general election of the Lower House — widely expected to be held in November — because they could lose votes if SDF personnel are hurt or killed while in Iraq, government sources said.

One senior government source said, “We are now talking about taking it slow because we will have four years to help with reconstruction.”

The government has told the United States that it might take a while before any SDF units are dispatched.

“We’re seeking their understanding, and I hope they will understand,” the official said, admitting that the alliance with Washington is a key reason behind the government’s rush to send Japanese troops to Iraq.

The security situations in Iraq, diplomacy and political considerations at home will all affect the timing of the dispatch. SDF officials are meanwhile scratching their heads over what they are expected to do there.

“We haven’t been told what kind of work is needed,” Hajime Massaki, chief of staff of the Ground Self-Defense Force, told a news conference Thursday.

A senior Defense Agency official said the security situation is too bad to even consider any concrete plan.

“We can’t decide on anything when things are as bad as now,” he said.

The government had envisioned the SDF providing clean water to U.S. troops stationed at Baghdad International Airport. But to the surprise of the Japanese government, the U.S. has asked the SDF to provide logistic support in Balad, 100 km north of Baghdad and considered a tough area due to ongoing attacks there on American soldiers.

But Fukuda has ruled out such a plan, saying it would be “difficult” to send SDF units to Balad amid the present security situation.

Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba said the timing of the dispatch will be decided only after security conditions become predictable and SDF personnel have been fully trained to handle dangerous situations.

“It would be against the law to send the SDF before those conditions are met,” Ishiba said last week. “It is not appropriate to say at this point when exactly (the SDF should be sent), either October or November.”

U.S. welcomes new law

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) The United States welcomed Friday the passage by the Diet of a bill to send Self-Defense Forces personnel to Iraq to support reconstruction efforts.

“We recognize what an important issue this is and how it’s an important development for Japan, which we welcome,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said at a regular press briefing.

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