Japan may delay troop dispatch to Iraq
TOKYO (AP): For war-wary Japan, it would have been historic -- dispatching troops to help rebuild an Iraq that's far from safe. But the bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad could force Tokyo to shelve plans to send a peacekeeping force to a combat zone for the first time since World War II.
Japanese officials now say the dispatch, approved last month by Parliament, may be delayed by up to several months.
"A dispatch may not be feasible this year,'' Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba told reporters late Wednesday.
"If we provide humanitarian aid, it doesn't seem out of the question that (Japanese troops) could be targeted for attack. It will probably take some time before the peace is restored,'' he said. "The fact is, a troop dispatch won't happen soon.''
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has sought to raise Japan's international profile by expanding its peacekeeping role, has stressed Japan's duty to help with reconstruction.
But Koizumi, who is up for re-election as head of the ruling party next month, has promised to make a decision on the timing after a government team confirms it is safe to do so.
"We will carefully monitor the situation and plan to conduct a thorough survey,'' he told reporters Wednesday in Poland, where he is on a three-nation European trip. "We have to continue the aid.''
He avoided saying when Tokyo planned to send its team to assess the security situation, after postponing a trip scheduled in mid-August. His top spokesman has also deflected similar questions.
Under new legislation, troops can be sent to overseas trouble spots to offer medical assistance, repatriate refugees, reconstruct buildings and roads, and give administrative advice.
They will be allowed to carry weapons to defend themselves when under fire -- not to help U.S. forces keep the peace.
Supporters of a mission involving ground troops argue that Japan needs to stand by the United States, a key ally and important bulwark against such potential threats as North Korea. Media reports said Tokyo was considering a force of 1,000 soldiers for transport and other duties to begin as early as October.
In July, two Japanese C-130 transport aircraft began shuttling U.N. supplies between Italy and Jordan, where they were packed onto trucks and transported overland. The planes returned on Monday.
But recent media polls indicate a majority of voters are opposed to expanding Japan's participation. In the wake of this week's bombing attack, doubt among voters and objections from opposition parties and anti-war groups who fear a revival of Japanese militarism is likely to grow. Many voters fear casualties are likely in Iraq, a prospect that is worrisome to those who see it as an American war.
Despite constitutional restraints on the use of force to settle international disputes, small Japanese military contingents have taken part in several U.N. peacekeeping operations since 1992, most recently in East Timor.
Only one serviceman has died on those missions, from a heart attack while on a naval vessel in the Indian Ocean.
Even if Japan deems it safe to send the military, called the Self-Defense Forces, Defense Agency officials say troops would not be immediately available. They would require weapons training and advance supplies would need to be packaged and shipped beforehand.
"At least three months would be needed to prepare troops for a mission,'' an agency official said, on condition of anonymity.