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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

NO CASUALTIES IN IRAQ

So far so good for Koizumi's gamble


Staff writer

No casualties and not a single shot fired — except in training — over 30 months.

News photo
Defense Agency Chief Fukushiro Nukaga is surrounded by reporters after a Cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Official Residence on Tuesday.

With this distinction, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's biggest political gamble enters its final stage with his order Tuesday for the pullout from Iraq of the Ground Self-Defense Force troops, who were dispatched amid public opposition toward sending military units overseas and fears of casualties.

When Koizumi dispatched the GSDF in January 2004 to show full commitment to the security alliance with the United States, observers warned that even one casualty — regardless of who the victim was — could be a fatal blow to his administration.

But the GSDF contingent has carried out its aid mission relatively unscathed, thanks to such factors as the stable security condition in their base of operations, the southern city of Samawah, and the protection provided by British and Australian forces in the area.

"The prime minister wants to withdraw the GSDF while he is in office because he is the one who sent them to Iraq," a top Defense Agency official said on condition of anonymity. Koizumi has said he will step down when his term as Liberal Democratic Party president expires in September.

The withdrawal could pose dangers, however, because the troops would be traveling outside the protection of their camp and thus be vulnerable.

Then there's the Iraqi summer, where the mercury can top 50 degrees.

But for Koizumi, now is probably the last chance to get the troops out while he is still in office, because Defense Agency officials say it will take 1 1/2 months to withdraw the 600 troops from Samawah to Kuwait, even if all goes well starting this month.

The Foreign Ministry, for its part, sees this as a chance to get the troops out without ruffling diplomatic feathers.

The overall security situation in the war-torn country is still far from stable, but the Iraqi government announced Monday it would take over security duties in Al-Muthanna Province, where the GSDF is deployed, next month when the British troops who had been in charge of security in southern Iraq begin their pullout as well.

Foreign Ministry officials want to time the GSDF withdrawal with the British and Australian troop exits to avoid giving the impression that Tokyo is backing away from its commitment to assist the people of Iraq.

"We'd like to avoid a situation where the withdrawal of the GSDF may be viewed negatively," a senior Foreign Ministry official said earlier.

To underscore Japan's commitment to continued assistance after the GSDF's exit, the Foreign Ministry released a paper Tuesday summarizing Japan's earlier pledges to provide 1.5 billion yen in grant aid and up to 3.5 billion yen worth of yen loan projects.

"Even after the withdrawal of the GSDF from Samawah, Japan will keep providing as much reconstruction assistance as it can in cooperation with the Iraqi government, the United Nations and other countries," Koizumi said Tuesday.

But while government officials stress that Tokyo remains fully committed to Iraq's reconstruction, many experts say that, ultimately, Tokyo's dispatch of troops was mainly aimed at appeasing Washington.

"On the surface, (the GSDF's activities) were aimed at supporting Iraq's reconstruction. But the real motives included a show of cooperation with the U.S.," said Jitsuro Terashima, honorary chairman of the nonprofit foundation Japan Research Institute.

As of June 12, 7,600 SDF personnel, including 5,500 GSDF troops and 1,800 Air Self-Defense Force airmen, have served in the Iraq theater, according to Defense Agency statistics.

The GSDF has provided 53,500 tons of drinking water, repaired 132 public infrastructure sites, including roads and schools, and provided medical services at four local hospitals.



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The Japan Times

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