Japan may extend Iraq troop dispatch by one year
Japan may extend its controversial non-combat troop dispatch to Iraq, a key gesture of support for Washington ahead of a meeting on Tuesday between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and US President George W. Bush.
Koizumi has expended considerable political capital to support the US-led war in Iraq and send about 550 troops to the southern Iraqi city of Samawa in Japan's riskiest overseas military dispatch since World War Two, a mission that has divided the country.
Japan's chief government spokesman Hiroyuki Hosoda said on Tuesday, however, that the dispatch may well be extended past its current Dec. 14 end.
"If conditions remain as they are now, we are now thinking that our continued participation is necessary," Hosoda told a news conference.
He added that a final decision would be made after taking a broad look at Japan's aid efforts and the security situation in Iraq over the next few months.
Koizumi is set to meet Bush in New York on the sidelines of a United Nations event.
On Monday, Koizumi expressed readiness to extend the mission in a meeting with Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, although he did not say how long an extension might be, Kyodo news agency reported.
The Nihon Keizai newspaper, however, said Japan was likely to extend its mission by a year and that this decision had already been unofficially relayed to the United States.
Critics have long contended that the dispatch violates Japan's pacifist constitution, and any plans to extend this are likely to spark fierce debate in an extraordinary parliament session set to start next month.
According to the newspaper, Japan's alliance with the United States + the cornerstone of its postwar foreign policy -- would make it difficult for Japan to withdraw given that US-led coalition forces are likely to be in Iraq for some time.
A law enacted last year enabling the Iraq dispatch limits the troops' activities to non-combat zones, and worsening security in Iraq has raised questions among opposition lawmakers about whether this condition is still being met.
Guidelines that Japan may use to decide when it will withdraw its troops include a US withdrawal and clear signs that Samawa is becoming a war zone, such as casualties among Japanese troops, the Nihon Keizai added.
The dispatch may be extended by six-month periods, the paper said, but this would require revision of the basic deployment plan, a move that could prove difficult.
Japan has extended several times a naval deployment to the Indian Ocean that provides logistical support for US-led operations in Afghanistan.