The government is set to extend Japan’s troop deployment in Iraq beyond Dec. 14 for another year, although Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has not adequately explained why an extension is necessary. Nor has the Diet debated the question in detail. A joint opposition bill aimed at ending the dispatch has been scrapped without being put to a vote.

Nearly 600 Self-Defense Force troops are stationed in Samawah, southern Iraq, to support humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in the area. But the security situation in Iraq remains volatile, even as the country prepares for its first free elections in January. What is needed now is a fundamental review of the SDF mission. A troop withdrawal should not be ruled out.

The mission, which started a year ago, has raised various issues. Perhaps the most important one is that the dispatch stems from Tokyo’s support of a war — an invasion launched by the United States without an explicit mandate from the U.N. Security Council — whose international legitimacy was questioned. The war has strained international relations, casting a shadow over Japan’s aid activities as well.

It is the first time that SDF troops have been dispatched to a foreign country in conflict. The government has taken pains to explain that the troops are performing noncombat duties in a noncombat area, but the Japanese public is increasingly skeptical. The lack of safety assurances makes the dispatch essentially different from previous SDF missions abroad, including the U.N.-backed peacekeeping operation in Cambodia and the logistic support (fuel supply) of the U.S. antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan.

In fact, the continued insurgency in Iraq is making the SDF presence there more difficult to sustain. Adding to the difficulty is the international perception that the war was not quite justified — a perception reinforced by a U.S. government confirmation that no weapons of mass destruction existed at the time of the invasion. Japan — which supported the military action as a member of the “coalition of the willing” — is finding itself in an uncomfortable position.

In November alone, 135 U.S. soldiers reportedly died in Iraq — a deadly indication that anti-American resistance remains strong. The U.S. military campaign in Fallujah appears to have succeeded, but there are other pockets of insurgency. Although the Pentagon has announced plans to increase the troop level in Iraq, there is as yet no assurance that stability will return nationwide before the January elections.

In this kind of situation, the SDF troops in Samawah remain exposed to danger. Already their camp has been targeted with mortars and rockets several times, although there has been no casualties. A rocket attack in late October damaged an iron container. There is no guarantee that personnel will be spared in future attacks.

Japan itself is on the “hit list” of international terrorist groups. An al-Qaeda leader has singled out this nation as a likely target. An aide to Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who leads a radical anti-American group, has branded the SDF an “occupation force,” saying in effect that Japan is an enemy.

The Japanese troops are providing services to help improve Iraqi lives, such as supplying drinking water and repairing damaged facilities. Local polls show that these activities are appreciated by a majority of residents. That is probably why the head of the province has requested continued deployment. But it is also true that a lack of security in the region continues to hamper humanitarian and reconstruction work.

A Japanese ad hoc law mandates that SDF troops must operate in “an area where combat is not taking place and is deemed unlikely to take place throughout the period of their activities.” Samawah was considered relatively or reasonably safe when the government gave the green light to the dispatch. The current situation in Iraq suggests that this condition has changed.

Some nations have already withdrawn or have announced intentions to withdraw troops. The Dutch contingent in Samawah — charged with maintaining security in the region — is scheduled to pull out in March. This is raising concerns here that the Japanese troops might be exposed to greater danger. The Dutch withdrawal will mean that the SDF will have to provide security on its own.

Prime Minister Koizumi, defending an extension of the SDF dispatch, has said in a characteristic one-bite comment: “How can we say we are pulling out when Iraqi people want us to stay?” Having supported the war, he may have a commitment to keep, but his real challenge is not merely to stick to his guns but to develop a better approach that broadens the scope of multilateral cooperation without jeopardizing the Japan-U.S. alliance.

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