Mon, Jul 21, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Koizumi's troop deployment plan a huge gamble

The Japanese government 's plan to let its military operate in highly volatile Iraq risks a huge domestic backlash

By Linda Sieg  /  REUTERS , TOKYO

When volunteer Atsuhito Nakata was shot dead while monitoring Cambodian elections in 1993 it sent shock waves through Japan and sparked debate on ending the nation's first postwar peacekeeping operation.

A decade later, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will be taking a serious political gamble if he goes ahead with plans to send troops to Iraq in what would be Japan's biggest military deployment overseas since World War II.

Nearly 60 years after the last Japanese soldier fired a weapon in combat, the nation's public remains allergic to anything resembling military aggression -- a mindset likely to affect voters' response if a Japanese soldier kills or is killed.

"It's an immense risk," said Takashi Inoguchi, a political scientist at the University of Tokyo.

"Many people tend to think soldiers landing in a foreign land is close to military aggression, which we more or less promised not to repeat half a century ago," Inoguchi said.

"The public reaction [to casualties] would first be for a big majority to say `You made a mistake'," he added. "But if the figures can be kept low, they might be persuaded."

Legislation paving the way for Japan to send about 1,000 troops to help rebuild war-torn Iraq is expected to be enacted next week. Koizumi has insisted that troops will be sent only to areas "free of military conflict."

"Once the law passes, we will have to carefully consider the situation in Iraq," he told reporters last Thursday. "We will send our troops to a non-war zone to do what's best for the people of Iraq."

Critics argue that such a distinction is impossible given a series of attacks on US and British soldiers since President George W. Bush declared major combat over in Iraq in May.

Already, top Japanese officials are showing signs of wanting to keep Japanese soldiers out of harm's way.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said last Thursday it would be difficult to send troops to the Iraqi town of Balad, where a US military base has come under attack.

"The security situation is not good," Fukuda, Japan's top government spokesman, told a news conference when asked about reports that Washington was pressing for Japanese troops to be sent to Balad, 90km north of the capital.

"Under the current circumstances, it would be difficult" for Japan to dispatch troops there, he said.

In a nod to the danger Japanese soldiers will face, the Defense Agency plans to raise the maximum death benefits for troops killed in Iraq to Japanese Yen 100 million (US$846,600) from the current Japanese Yen 70 million, a Japanese newspaper reported last Wednesday.

"It is expected that some casualties ... may take place," Inoguchi said. "You can't save just Japanese soldiers."

Japan has been testing the limits of its pacifist Constitution for the past decade, boosting the ability of the military to project its power abroad.

The pace of change increased after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Eager to avoid the embarrassment suffered in the Gulf War, when Japan gave cash but no troops, Tokyo enacted a law to let it provide logistical support for the US-led war in Afghanistan.

Koizumi also lent staunch moral support to the US-led war on Iraq despite opposition by the vast majority of voters.

But Koizumi's popularity ratings are at about 50 percent -- high for a Japanese leader after more than two years in office.

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