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An internal Ground Self-Defense Force report on its 2004-2006 mission to Iraq — which was recently disclosed years after it was compiled — reveals how the SDF troops dispatched on a humanitarian aid mission to a “noncombat” zone in the war-torn country were still exposed to tense situations involving repeated mortar and rocket shell attacks on their camp, including one that may have been “only one step away from causing serious damage.” The government-proposed security legislation now before the Upper House can take SDF troops much closer to the battlefield to provide logistical support to other forces engaged in combat in international conflicts — missions that might effectively be deemed inseparable from use of force by other countries’ troops.

The Iraq mission, based on a special temporary law for Japan’s support in the reconstruction of Iraq after the large-scale U.S.-led war operation was declared ended, was the first deployment of SDF troops to a country still experiencing conflict. A total of some 5,500 GSDF troops were dispatched to Samawah in southern Iraq and mainly engaged in medical aid, water supply and repair of roads and school buildings.

To set them apart from the military operations still ongoing in Iraq, the GSDF troops were deployed to what was defined as a “noncombat zone” where no combat activities were deemed to take place throughout the entire period of their mission. Still, the report, compiled by the GSDF in 2008 as an internal document, quotes the deployed unit chief as describing the mission as a “purely military operation.”

The 430-page report, which was disclosed to opposition lawmakers who sat on the Lower House special committee on the security legislation only after the committee deliberations on the bills were wrapped up, acknowledged the presence of enemy forces in Samawah, citing the death of a Dutch soldier engaged in security duties in the area, an attack on local police as well as and damage inflicted on a GSDF vehicle by a roadside bomb. The GSDF camp faced more than 10 attacks by mortars and rockets, including one in October 2004 in which a rocket struck an iron container used to store goods at the camp. The troops were trained prior to the dispatch to use their weapons for self-defense, and many of the commanders taught them to “fire the moment they think they are in danger,” according to the report.

None of the GSDF troops were injured during the mission but the report also refers to the psychological stress that they were placed under. Although no causal relationship has been established, the report says 21 of the 5,500 GSDF troops deployed to Iraq, along with eight Air Self-Defense Force members dispatched on a mission to airlift the troops of GSDF and multinational forces as well as supplies between Kuwait and Iraq, committed suicide after they returned to Japan.

The security legislation now before the Diet includes a blanket bill to pave the way for overseas deployment of SDF troops in missions to provide logistical support for the forces of other countries engaged in combat missions in an international military conflict. Whereas the GSDF deployment in Iraq was limited to areas where fighting was not supposed to take place, the proposed bill can take the SDF troops to anywhere except the battlefield where the fighting is taking place. Their missions will include the previously banned supply of ammunition and jet refueling to the combat troops of other forces.

The Abe administration dismisses the charges from constitutional scholars and the opposition camp that such missions would comprise an integral part of the use of force by the other militaries in the combat duties, thereby violating Article 9 of the Constitution that renounces the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In the Lower House deliberations, Abe and Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said the SDF unit deployed to such a mission will choose a site where fighting is not expected to take place to provide the logistical support, and that should fighting take place, the unit chief will decide to suspend the mission and withdraw — thereby securing the safety of the troops safety and preventing them from becoming a part of the use of force. But it’s not clear if such a scenario would be feasible in an area where fighting can break out anytime, anywhere.

The argument that troops responsible for logistics are not a part of the combat mission also seems hardly convincing. Opposition lawmakers and many experts say that enemy forces would naturally consider Japanese troops providing the logistical support as a legitimate target of attack. The government has not been able to dispel such concerns in the deliberation of the security bills.

Along with enabling Japan to use force in collective self-defense, the security legislation changes the nature of the SDF’s overseas missions in support of other military forces. The details of the GSDF mission to the “noncombat zone” in Iraq in the 2008 report should be taken into account as the Upper House scrutinizes the expanded scope of the SDF missions abroad and what risk such missions could entail for the Japanese troops.

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