Japan’s 2 1/2-year military deployment in Iraq was a success that will serve as a lesson for future missions as the country moves to assume a bigger role in regional and global security, Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga said in an interview Wednesday.

Tokyo announced June 20 it will pull its troops out of Iraq over the next two months, after British and Australian forces said they would transfer security responsibilities in the south to Iraqi forces.

Japan has 600 Ground Self-Defense Force troops in the city of Samawah on a reconstruction mission.

“We met our objectives,” Nukaga said. “The Iraqis are ready to resume control again.”

The mission, which began in 2004, is part of Tokyo’s drive to play a greater international diplomatic and military role, more commensurate with its economic power. It has been Japan’s largest, most dangerous overseas military mission — and its first to a war zone since World War II.

“Our efforts have been praised by both local authorities and by coalition members,” Nukaga said. “I think we can call it a success.”

The troops’ noncombat mission, limited by the pacifist Constitution, focused on purifying water, repairing schools, patching up roads and strengthening medical services.

Nukaga said the troops repaired more than 100 km of road, and restored two-thirds of the local schools.

“Because of the dirty water in Samawah, the infant death rate was very high,” he said. “That has dropped by two-thirds since 2002.”

Despite concerns about the troops’ safety, the area where they were based was relatively peaceful and the contingent suffered no casualties.

Nukaga said Japan will continue to provide assistance by expanding air operations to ferry U.S. personnel and medical supplies.

Though highly contentious in the beginning, a survey published Wednesday indicated that nearly half of Japanese believe deploying the troops was “good” for Japan.

About 49 percent of the 1,965 respondents to an Asahi Shimbun poll said the deployment — which began winding down last Sunday — had been positive, while 35 percent said it was not.

“We want to proactively consider our role in future missions,” Nukaga said.

On rising concerns that North Korea may soon test-launch one of its most advanced long-range ballistic missiles, Nukaga said Japan has dispatched Aegis-equipped warships and reconnaissance planes to monitor the situation. He said Tokyo is also coordinating intelligence-gathering with the U.S. military.

“We cannot sit idly by,” Nukaga said.

Recent intelligence reports say North Korea may be fueling a Taepodong-2 at a launch site on the country’s northeastern coast. The missile is believed to be capable of reaching parts of the United States.

The North shocked the world in 1998 by firing a missile that flew over northern Japan and fell into the Pacific. It has been under a self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile tests since 1999, but has since test-fired many short-range missiles.

Nukaga, who was also defense chief in 1998, said Japan is reacting “calmly.”

“This isn’t the first time, so we have a better idea of what is happening and what to do,” he said.

He acknowledged, however, that intercepting the missile is not a likely option.

“Japan doesn’t have the capability to shoot it down,” Nukaga said. “We hope that this will be resolved by diplomacy and that North Korea will listen to the cautions and requests of international society. North Korea’s leaders must realize this. They are making enemies of the world.”

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