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The Cabinet on Friday approved a two-year extension of the Air Self-Defense Force deployment to Kuwait to provide airlift support to U.N. and multinational forces in Iraq, but the Democratic Party of Japan plans to challenge the move with a counterproposal for a pullout.

“A two-year extension is necessary to continue stable airlift support,” Foreign Minister Taro Aso said in a statement issued after the endorsement, adding the mission serves Japan’s national interest to respond to requests in U.N. resolutions to support Iraq’s reconstruction.

Japan is among the staunchest supporters of the United States, its closest ally, in the war in Iraq. Tokyo previously sent Ground Self-Defense Force troops on an aid mission in southern Iraq as well as the ASDF Kuwait dispatch. The troops were pulled out last summer but the air operations have been expanded.

While the deployment remains controversial as some criticize it for violating the Constitution, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki defended the extension, saying, “There is an international consensus that we should aim for stability and reconstruction in Iraq.

“I must make it clear that Japan made its own decision on its own initiative . . . as we considered what Japan can do independently to contribute,” the top government spokesman told a news conference, while dodging reporters’ questions on whether Tokyo’s support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq was the right decision.

In a separate briefing, Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma dismissed criticism on the lack of coordination within the ruling coalition on Japan’s Iraq policies and said, “What is important for us as the administration is not to dwell on the past but to decide on whether (continued deployment) is needed or not right now.”

Kyuma angered Washington when he said in January that U.S. President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was “wrong.” He has also openly expressed views against Japan’s support of the war, saying he still believes it was premature and there should have been a better alternative.

The Liberal Democratic Party and its ruling coalition ally, New Komeito, are seeking to pass the bill, which will extend a special measures law to support Iraq’s reconstruction through July 31, 2009, before the current Diet session ends on June 23, coalition lawmakers said.

The Democratic Party of Japan meanwhile plans to introduce a bill to abolish the special measures law.

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