Even as increasing attacks have curtailed the activities of Japanese troops in southern Iraq, Japan's government appears poised to extend their mission and provide continued support for the US.
Defense Minister Yoshinori Ono, while saying that the government would delay a decision until shortly before the current mission ends on Dec. 14, has expressed satisfaction with the deployment.
In any event, the mission will not end immediately. Replacement troops bound for Iraq have just left Japan on what is expected to be a three-month tour.
The presence in Samawa, Iraq, of Japan's 550 noncombat troops, taking part in the country's most important military mission since World War II, has provided important diplomatic backing for the Americans. In recent weeks, US officials have urged Japan to extend the deployment, and General John Abizaid, commander of US forces in the Middle East, visited the Japanese base in November.
As Japan's deployment nears its anniversary without a single casualty, it has also set the stage for a transformation in Japan's military. In a country that until recently would have regarded sending troops to Iraq as inconceivable, officials are moving toward rescinding a ban on weapons exports, citing China as a possible threat and revising the so-called pacifist Constitution to turn the Self-Defense Forces into a real military.
"The concept of Japan's defense capability is changing now," Ono said. "For one, it is considering making international cooperation efforts its primary mission. Japan has to think broadly."
The government is moving forward even as polls indicate that the Japanese population is against an extension, and misgivings have deepened recently, since Shosei Koda, 24, a Japanese tourist, was kidnapped and beheaded in Iraq in October. The political opposition and some members of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's own party have been calling for the troops' withdrawal.
They say that because of increasing mortar and rocket attacks against the Japanese camp, the soldiers rarely leave their base and have become unable to perform their duty of engaging in aid work. They also say that Samawa can no longer be considered a noncombat zone, the only areas where the Japanese troops are allowed to operate under a law passed last year. The Japanese rely on Dutch troops for security.
"They went there, claiming that they will contribute to reconstruction, but they have hardly been able to get the work done," Koichi Kato, a lawmaker and influential member of Koizumi's party, said in an interview. "There is no reason for them to be there. The place is not safe, and it is impossible to do reconstruction. I think the government should terminate the dispatch now."
Kato added that aid work was merely a pretext for Koizumi to support the Bush administration, and that the troops' real mission was simply to be in Iraq. While that has strengthened ties with Washington, Kato said, the Arab world has begun looking at Japan as a military ally of the US.
"It is extremely dangerous," Kato said. "The good image that took Japan 60 to 100 years to build in the Arab world has crumbled over the past year or so."
In Samawa two months ago, Iraqi officials and residents there said they were disappointed by the small scale of the Japanese aid efforts. Many said they rarely saw the Japanese troops leave their base.