The Ground Self-Defense Force troops deployed to the city of Samawah in southern Iraq will commence their humanitarian aid mission later this month.

“We have at last reached this point. It is the beginning of a long struggle,” GSDF Chief of Staff Hajime Massaki told a news conference Thursday, commenting ahead of the first anniversary of the March 20, 2003, launch of the U.S.-led war on Iraq.

He described the past year as “tumultuous” for the Self-Defense Forces, saying he had never dreamed a year ago that the SDF would actually partake in a reconstruction mission on Iraqi soil.

A year ago, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi defied domestic opponents to support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

And now hundreds of GSDF troops are deployed to Samawah to engage in water purification and medical aid activities. The dispatch, in line with a special law for supporting Iraq’s reconstruction, marks the first time Japanese troops have been sent to a conflict zone since World War II.

The Iraq war caused serious discord between the U.S. and its allies on one hand and nations opposed to the action, including France and Germany, on the other. Some see this as a conflict between unilateralism and United Nations-centered multilateralism.

Motohiro Ono, a senior fellow at the Middle East Research Institute of Japan, criticized both the U.S. for its “high-handed” launching of the war despite opposition from many in the international community, and France, Germany and many others for failing to commit to Iraq’s reconstruction despite its pressing needs.

The GSDF humanitarian mission in Samawah is significant in this respect, he said.

Ono acknowledged that Japan’s support for the war and subsequent dispatch of troops may have given the impression that Tokyo has given up its neutral position in the Middle East and sided with the U.S., but he said this is not the majority view.

This perception might wane, he said, if the SDF aid mission proves a success and is appreciated by local Iraqis.

Because of the constraints of the war-renouncing Constitution, the special law enacted last year limits SDF activities in Iraq to humanitarian and reconstruction roles. The troops are not allowed to take part in combat or security-related missions.

Amid strong pressure from Washington to commit troops despite concerns over the continued bloodshed in Iraq, Japan chose to deploy troops to Samawah mainly because the city is considered safe.

Critics charge that the government’s primary interest was in satisfying the U.S. call for troops. Reconstruction needs are considered to be less pressing in Samawah.

“Considering the actual humanitarian and reconstruction needs in Iraq, (the Samawah dispatch) is nearly meaningless,” said Michio Kumaoka, head of Japan International Volunteer Center, a Tokyo-based nongovernment organization.

Kumaoka said Japan should have focused on restoring infrastructure such as electricity and sewerage systems in Baghdad and other major cities.

“The dispatch is intended as token cooperation with the U.S., instead of for reconstruction purposes,” Kumaoka said. Two workers from his group have been engaged in an aid project at a children’s hospital in Baghdad since September 2002.

Japan might have bolstered its alliance with Washington, but at what price?

Two Japanese diplomats and their Iraqi driver were assassinated in northern Iraq in late November. Although the perpetrators were never identified, some speculate that the attack was in retaliation to Tokyo’s support of the U.S.-led war. Japan, because of this support, also faces a rising threat of terrorism at home.

After the March 11 train bombings in Madrid that killed more than 200, a group with alleged links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network that claimed responsibility for the attack named Japan as a potential target for being a lackey to the U.S.

The government has responded by boosting security at railway stations nationwide. Authorities had already been on high alert since last month at airports, nuclear plants and government facilities.

On Wednesday, officials from the ruling bloc — the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito — and the Democratic Party of Japan began discussing comprehensive legislation to deal with large-scale terrorist attacks.

In the days following the Madrid bombings, the Spanish ruling party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who had steadfastly supported the U.S.-led war, was defeated and the incoming leader has pledged to pull Spain’s troops from Iraq.

Japan, however, has vowed to stand firm in its troop deployment.

Koizumi’s ruling bloc meanwhile faces a triennial House of Councilors election in July. Recent opinion polls show voters equally split between supporting and opposing the GSDF deployment, but this could change over time in the event the mission stretches on.

Maritime Self-Defense Force ships have been deployed to the Indian Ocean to support the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan since November 2001. A special law for the dispatch, enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. and originally set to expire in October, was extended for another two years.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference in January that Japan will withdraw its troops when there is “no further need for the SDF to stay in Iraq.”

Although the basic SDF deployment plan unveiled in December stipulates that the troops could continue their mission until Dec. 14, an extension is possible up until the special Iraq dispatch law expires in August 2007.

“I had not thought Iraq would be in such a state today when the war began,” said a senior government official who asked not to be named, referring to the continued unstable security situation months after the invasion ended. “Now I don’t think the troops can be withdrawn in six months or a year.”

Political observer Minoru Morita said a Japanese troop pullout may depend on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November.

If a Democrat wins, the U.S. will probably call for the United Nations to organize a multilateral peacekeeping force for Iraq, Morita said.

In that case, GSDF troops would naturally be integrated into the U.N. operation, he said. The troops could be withdrawn and redeployed under a U.N. framework, he said.

But if George W. Bush is re-elected, Koizumi with his emphasis on the U.S. alliance will not be able to withdraw the GSDF unless the U.S. either decides to pull out its own forces or gives Japan the nod to do so, Morita said.

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