The government has extended by another year the deployment of Self-Defense Force (SDF) troops in Iraq. The extension, decided at Thursday’s Cabinet meeting, came about by changing the basic plan under an ad hoc law that allows SDF soldiers to engage in noncombat activities in Iraq. The decision follows a similar one made last year and reflects Washington’s wishes.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has consistently and staunchly supported the United States since the start of the war in Iraq, had effectively promised to extend deployment in a recent meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush. He reportedly told Mr. Bush that he would make the decision by taking into account the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance.

In an effort to mitigate public concern over the extension of the SDF troop deployment in Iraq, the government last weekend had Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga make a surprise inspection visit to Samawah.

Mr. Nukaga’s positive assessment of the SDF’s mission apparently helped pave the way toward public acceptance of extending the mission. It also partially made up for Mr. Koizumi’s failure to deliver clear explanations before and after his meeting with Mr. Bush. That failure had drawn criticism.

Visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari directly urged Mr. Koizumi to extend the SDF mission to further help rebuild his war-torn nation. Mr. Al-Jaafari’s visit to Japan was also apparently part of the Japanese government’s effort to create a domestic environment favorable to extending the SDF deployment. Mr. Al-Jaafari stressed that the SDF’s mission for humanistic support of Iraqi reconstruction is fully understood and appreciated by Iraqi people.

The revised basic plan notes that the government will flexibly act in response to changing situations in Iraq despite the one-year extension of the SDF deployment. It indicates the possibility of withdrawing the SDF troops from Samawah even before the expiration date if British and Australian forces should leave the area. Security in Samawah, where the Ground SDF contingent is stationed, is currently maintained by forces from those two countries. These forces, however, are reported set to leave the region by next spring. At that time, Iraqi forces are expected to take over security activities there. But it is uncertain whether they will be able to protect the SDF unit, considering that terrorists continue to attack local forces in various parts of the country.

Otherwise, the updated basic plan does not differ from the previous document. It states how long SDF members will stay in Iraq and what specific activities they will carry out. The number of GSDF members remains set at the level of fewer than 600. Their main duties are defined as medical assistance, water supply, and repairs and maintenance of schools and roads. With the end of water-supply activities in February, the main thrust of support shifted to road repairs. These activities, however, have been hampered by occasional rocket attacks near the camp site.

Fortunately, not a single SDF member has been killed or wounded so far. But there is no assurance that this will remain the case. It is time to replace the SDF mission with official development assistance and other non-SDF contributions. The government has already decided to cut about 80 percent, or $6.1 billion, of the debt owed by Iraq.

The U.S. government reportedly is weighing a plan that would relocate the SDF unit in Samawah to elsewhere in Iraq so that it could participate, along with U.S. forces and U.S. State Department officials, in a new reconstruction project aimed at improving the security and administrative functions of local governments.

The special law restricts SDF activities to a “noncombat zone” — a concept devised to avoid a violation of the Constitution, which prohibits the use of force abroad. That’s why SDF troops have been stationed in Samawah, which is believed to be relatively safe from terrorist violence. In view of the continued insecurity elsewhere in Iraq, a relocation of SDF troops could put them in harm’s way, possibly leading to the violation of the constitutional constraint on the use of force. Responding to informal soundings from the U.S. administration, the government reportedly has replied that such a plan is unacceptable. That is the right response to make.

What if the GSDF unit withdraws along with the British and Australian forces next spring? Even then, it is said, the government wants to maintain the air unit that transports U.S. goods from Kuwait to Iraq. If so, the weight of the SDF mission would shift further to support of U.S. forces, rather than reconstruction support, creating yet another difficult problem for Japan.

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