The government announced Tuesday that Japan will withdraw its Ground Self-Defense Force troops from southern Iraq, ending their 2 1/2-year noncombat mission. It is fortunate that, so far, not a single GSDF member has been injured or killed during this time and that the GSDF troops have not had to fire a single bullet. The mission, in which a total of 5,500 GSDF members participated in three-month rotations, was the largest-ever overseas deployment for the GSDF.

The rather smooth operation and conclusion of the mission, however, should not be used as justification for future, unrestricted deployments of Self-Defense Force units overseas. Utmost care must be taken during the withdrawal phase to ensure that no GSDF troops are harmed or find themselves in a situation in which they must hit back by firing their weapons. It is expected to take four to six weeks for the current 600-member GSDF contingent in Iraq to move to Kuwait for eventual return to Japan.

Japanese opposition lawmakers early on raised the question of the constitutionality of the GSDF deployment in Iraq. An ad hoc law enacted in July 2003 — and set to expire in four years — enabled the government to carry out the SDF troop deployment for noncombat activities only. The law also restricted SDF activities to a “noncombat zone,” a concept devised to avoid the appearance of violating the Constitution, which prohibits the use of military force abroad.

The first GSDF contingent was sent to Samawah in Muthana Province in February 2004. From March 26, 2004, to Feb. 4, 2005, the GSDF provided some 53,500 tons of potable water for the Samawah area, enough for 12 million people-days. It also had completed public infrastructure repair work at 131 locations such as schools and roads as of June 1, and has provided medical service assistance at four hospitals. One result is that the death rate for newborn babies at Samawah Mother and Child Hospital has dropped to one-third of the level in 2002. GSDF activities have created job opportunities for up to 1,100 people per day.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s administration ordered the deployment of GSDF troops at the strong request of the Bush administration. As the name of the ad hoc law suggests, the purpose of the GSDF deployment was to provide humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to Iraq. Therefore, Japan is expected to continue helping the war-ravaged land become a viable, democratic and peaceful country.

The GSDF deployment in Iraq has come to be viewed as a token of Japan’s readiness to accept an expanding role in its security ties with the United States, and of Japan’s willingness to cooperate with the U.S. in the Iraq war.

In this connection, it must not be forgotten that the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003 on dubious grounds. U.S. insistence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was not proven. The U.S. argument that Iraq had ties with al-Qaida, which was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., also was off the mark. The GSDF’s presence in Iraq caused resentment among Islamist extremists, and in April 2004, three Japanese were taken hostage and later released. In October of the same year, 24-year-old Shosei Koda was captured and then beheaded.

The Japanese government’s decision to withdraw the GSDF contingent was influenced by circumstances created by other countries. The decision was in step with the scheduled withdrawal of British and Australian security forces from Muthana Province. Iraqi troops are expected to take over the security maintenance responsibility for the province by the end of July.

Even as it announced an end to the GSDF deployment in Iraq, the government decided to expand airlift assistance provided by the Air Self-Defense Force for the benefit of multinational forces and the United Nations. At present, three ASDF C-130 air transports are based in Kuwait, mainly transporting goods to an airport near Samawah. They airlifted 460.5 tons of goods on a total of 327 days from March 3, 2004, to June 16.

Mr. Koizumi said the government has decided to provide new airlift support to Baghdad and Erbil. When the new mission starts, the Defense Agency should give detailed reports on the kinds of materials the ASDF aircraft are transporting. The ASDF’s new mission carries the risk of involving Japan more deeply with the operations of U.S. forces. Since the security situation in Baghdad is worse than in Samawah, the aircraft could be targeted by extremist groups.

The Japanese government needs to take the long view by focusing on helping Iraqis with technical training and infrastructure construction. It must consider how $3.5 billion in official development assistance loans can best help stabilize the life of the Iraqi people. In doing so, cooperation with the U.N. and other international organizations will be indispensable.

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