Global Policy Forum

Japan Considering Exit Strategy from Iraq

Associated Press
May 11, 2005

After kissing their babies and hugging their wives, 200 Japanese soldiers in combat fatigues lined up at a base in central Japan last weekend under the ''Rising Sun'' flag for what has become a familiar ritual -- the send-off for troops on their way to Iraq. But this batch of soldiers may be among the last. Nearly 18 months into its most ambitious overseas military operation since World War II, Japan is now considering whether to join a growing list of countries pulling out or scaling back their operations in Iraq in the coming months.

A pullout by Japan would be a blow for President Bush, who is struggling to keep such coalition supporters as Italy and Poland on board. Like many coalition partners, however, the troops' fate has presented Tokyo with a difficult dilemma. Despite the strong backing of the deployment by popular Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, public opinion remains deeply divided over whether the troops should have gone at all. Washington, meanwhile, is pushing hard for Japan's tightly restrained military to assume a more aggressive role overseas, meaning the Iraq mission's legacy will likely loom large for years to come.

Officials stressed on Tuesday that the future of the deployment would not be influenced by the suspected kidnapping of a Japanese security contractor -- a former paratrooper with Japan's army -- outside a U.S. military base near Baghdad the day before. ''At the moment, it won't affect the activities of Self-Defense Forces in Samawah,'' the southern Iraq city where the troops are based, defense chief Yoshinori Ono said.

Still, Tokyo seems to be leaning toward a speedy withdrawal. Ono told a news conference last week that the end of the year was being considered as a pullout date because that would coincide with the end of the U.N. mandate. ''We hope to turn over what the Self-Defense Forces are doing to the Iraqi people as soon as possible,'' Ono said. But he said the situation will be carefully reviewed to determine whether withdrawing is appropriate.

Tokyo could inform other coalition countries of its plans as early as September. After withdrawing, Tokyo is expected to focus its contribution on financial aid. If it does withdraw, Japan would be following a trend. Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has said he hoped Italian forces could begin returning by September -- although he has said the decision would depend on the security situation and would be made in agreement with the United States and other allies. Ukraine, the Netherlands and Spain have already begun pulling out. Poland -- the fourth-largest contributor of troops to the U.S.-led coalition, with 1,700 troops -- is planning on calling home its main force at the end of the year unless the U.N. Security Council renews their mandate.

The Japanese deployment has been problematic from the start. After an intense and bitter debate in parliament, the first troops were sent to southern Iraq for a non-combat, humanitarian reconstruction mission early last year. About 550 Japanese soldiers are currently based in dusty, impoverished Samawah, a relatively peaceful Shiite stronghold. The mission and its accompanying air and naval logistical support is Japan's largest overseas military deployment since World War II ended in 1945.

Staking his political future on the deployment, Koizumi argued it did not violate postwar constitutional constraints that strictly limit the military to a defensive role because Samawah was not in a ''combat zone.'' He also stressed that the troops were the only ones with the training and equipment required to carry out the mission. To date, no Japanese soldier has been injured -- or even fired a weapon in combat -- in Samawah.

But the area isn't completely safe. A Dutch soldier was killed and another injured in Samawah in a grenade attack in May last year. Several mortar shells have landed in or near the Japanese base, where roughly two-thirds of the troops are assigned to security. The humanitarian aspect of the mission has also fallen short of many expectations. Due to the dangers, the troops are rarely allowed to leave camp, deeply hindering their ability to carry out reconstruction projects such as road-building, medical assistance and water purification.

With the troops on a short leash, the Foreign Ministry announced last December it was extending a grant of $353,000 to the French aid organization ACTED, which worked in the same area with local staff and was able to provide 550 tons of fresh water a day. The troops quit the water purification operation -- the centerpiece of their mission -- altogether in February, handing it over to aid organizations.

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