Order issued to pull ASDF from Kuwait, end airlift mission

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The government finalized the order Friday to end the Air Self-Defense Force’s airlift mission in the Middle East, terminating a nearly five-year Japanese military presence in Iraq.

This means Tokyo, which supported the United States decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and sent Ground Self-Defense Force troops to help with reconstruction under the protection of other nations’ militaries, is likely to exit the area without a single casualty. The first ASDF airmen arrived in January 2004.

The ASDF has a unit of C-130H transports ferrying personnel and supplies between its duty base in Kuwait and Iraq for the United Nations and multinational forces there.

The airlifts will end by mid-December, and all ASDF personnel will be home by the end of March, the Defense Ministry said.

“I express my utmost respect to the Self-Defense Forces officers who were engaged in their duties,” Prime Minister Taro Aso said in a statement, adding that the U.N. and other participants approved the withdrawal.

GSDF troops were dispatched to Iraq on the authority of a special bill the Diet passed in 2003 on the initiative of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who was a close ally of U.S. President George W. Bush. The ASDF contingent went to Kuwait at the same time.

After the GSDF ended its humanitarian aid mission in Iraq in July 2006, ASDF top brass said the unit should be withdrawn as well, according to Defense Ministry sources. But the government decided to keep the operation going as a token of Japan’s commitment to the Japanese-U.S. military alliance.

The ASDF’s exit will coincide with Bush’s departure from the White House and the arrival of President-elect Barak Obama, an advocate of early withdrawal from Iraq.

Aso cited security improvements as the reason for the decision, which was made soon after the U.S. began to withdraw, but pledged that Japan will continue to support Iraq through technical and financial measures after the air unit comes home.

Defense Minister Hamada meanwhile told reporters Friday that about 70 officers will be sent in early December to Iraq to lay the groundwork for the withdrawal.

The missions constitute Japan’s first military dispatch to a war zone since the war.

Lawmakers and observers have criticized the missions, claiming they violate the special dispatch law, which stipulates that SDF units can only operate in noncombat zones.