Japan's face-saving exit from Iraq

Posted in Japan | 20-Jun-06 | Author: Hisane Masaki| Source: Asia Times

TOKYO - After several twists and turns, Japan finally made a long-awaited announcement on Tuesday that it will withdraw its troops from Iraq, a decision that will allow the nation to play on its own ground in post-war Iraq: economic cooperation.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced that some 600 Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) troops stationed in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah would return home.

"After closely consulting with the United States, the multinational forces, Britain and Australia, I made the decision because I judged that the humanitarian mission has completed a certain achievement in the region," Koizumi told a news conference.

British forces currently oversee a multinational contingent in Muthanna, which includes Japanese and Australian troops. It will be the first of the Iraqi provinces, outside the relatively peaceful north, to come under full Iraqi control. The transfer of security authority has been the major factor behind Tokyo's decision on the timing of the GSDF pullout.

On Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said that Iraqi forces would take over security in the southern province of Muthanna, of which Samawah is the capital, next month.

Tuesday's decision, formalized at the day's security council chaired by Koizumi, will end Japan's first - and most dangerous - troop deployment since World War II to a country where fighting is still ongoing. The GSDF troops will retreat to Kuwait - where the Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) unit is stationed - within a month or so before stepping on Japanese soil again.

Koizumi and US President George W Bush, who both took office in early 2001, have forged a close personal relationship. Koizumi has been one of the staunchest supporters of the Bush administration's "war on terror" as well as the Iraq war. The Koizumi government enacted two new controversial laws to enable the SDF to assist US-led military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Under the first law, enacted in October 2001, only several weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, SDF naval vessels were dispatched to the Indian Ocean to help with fuel supplies to coalition warships in the US-led operation in Afghanistan. By international standards, even refueling such ships effectively means exercising the right to collective self-defense, an act successive Japanese governments have interpreted as violating the post-World War II, pacifist constitution, which bans the use or threat of force as a means of settling international disputes.

Under the second law, enacted in August 2003, the Koizumi government dispatched non-combat GSDF troops to Iraq in early 2004. The SDF troops have been deployed in Samawah on a humanitarian and reconstruction mission, such as medical assistance, water purification and repair of roads, schools and other infrastructure.

Although Japan wanted to withdraw earlier, it could not do so because it feared hurting relations with the US by becoming the first among the close US allies in the Iraq war to exit. Japan's earlier plan to begin a troop withdrawal in March - which received informal approval from the US, Britain and Australia - was botched because of the delay in the formation of a new Iraqi government following mid-December parliamentary elections and a resurgence in insurgent and sectarian violence across Iraq.

Significant developments came on June 8, when Maliki announced that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was killed in a US air strike. Zarqawi was accused of advocating and participating in the kidnappings and beheadings of foreign workers. His group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and beheading of Japanese backpacker, 24-year-old Shosei Koda in October 2004.

Shortly after the Zarqawi announcement, the Iraqi parliament approved Maliki's nominees for the key posts of defense and interior ministers, which had remained unfilled despite the formation of a new coalition government on May 20.

For Japan, the British and Australian plans to withdraw their forces from the southern province of Muthanna provided a convenient cover as non-combat Japanese troops are protected by British and Australian forces.

To be sure, Japan's deployment of troops in Iraq marked a turning point in the nation's security policy and significantly solidified the alliance with the US. But while Koizumi has enjoyed remarkably high popularity, the troop deployment has proved quite unpopular among the Japanese public.

Koizumi-Bush meeting
No Japanese troops have been killed in Iraq. Even the killing of a single Japanese soldier would have dealt a severe blow to the Koizumi government. Many analyst say Koizumi has been lucky on this point. Koizumi has been widely believed to have a strong desire to see the GSDF troops return home before he steps down in September, when his current term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - and hence as premier - expires.

Koizumi, as premier, will make his last visit to the US at the end of this month. In an apparent quid pro quo for the withdrawal of GSDF troops, Koizumi is expected to tell Bush that Japan will meet the US request for the ASDF's logistic support activities around Iraq.

The ASDF unit, now stationed in Kuwait, will continue with its mission. Three C-130 cargo planes are currently involved in transporting multinational forces' personnel and materials mainly between Kuwait and Taril Airport in southern Iraq. The security council decided on Tuesday to expand the airplanes' activities to include Baghdad and the northern Iraqi city of Arbi. This is something Japan has refused to do previously on the ground that it is too dangerous.

Koizumi and Bush are expected to reaffirm the solid security alliance between their countries, despite the Japanese troop pullout hiccup. They are expected to agree on the importance of implementing a final agreement their foreign and defense ministers announced in early May on the realignment of nearly 50,000 American forces and bases in Japan.

The realignment, which is part of the US's global "transformation" of its military and includes the transfer of 8,000 US marines from the southernmost Japanese island prefecture of Okinawa to Guam in the Pacific, will further cement the bonds between the allies through increased integration of their military operations. It will also pave the way for Tokyo's greater involvement in US-led operations not only in Asia, but globally.

North Korea will also very likely top the agenda at the Koizumi-Bush meeting, as the Stalinist state is reportedly preparing to test-fire its long-range missile, Taepodong 2, which is reportedly capable of hitting the US West Coast. Iran's nuclear development program will also be high on the agenda.

In his talks with Bush, Koizumi is also expected to express Japan's firm determination to play a leading role in Iraqi reconstruction. On Monday, Koizumi said that Japan would continue to provide reconstruction and humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people even after the troops were pulled out.

Foreign Minister Taro Aso also said, "Japan needs to continue its commitment to assist efforts of the Iraqi government and its people toward nation-building while cooperating with the international community."

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Japanese Ambassador Hisao Yamaguchi met with the Iraqi prime minister and vowed that Japan would continue to actively support Iraqi reconstruction efforts, mainly through its official development assistance.

Japan has taken a high profile in Iraqi reconstruction. In fact, Japan has pledged $5 billion in aid - $1.5 billion in grants-in-aid and $3.5 billion in soft loans - for post-war Iraq, the largest amount committed by any single nation, except the US. The $1.5 billion portion has already been disbursed. According to the US State Department, as of the end of March, of the $13.5 billion total pledged by nations other than the US at an aid conference for Iraq in 2003, only $3.5 billion had been disbursed. This slow pace of disbursements has frustrated the US.

In March, Japan lifted a freeze on soft loans imposed since 1985 and decided to provide about 76.5 billion yen (US$665 million) in soft loans to Iraq. Of this amount, 30.2 billion yen will be used for the rehabilitation of Port Umm-Qasr, the most important port of Iraq; 36.7 billion yen for the rehabilitation of al-Mussaib thermal power plants in the suburbs of Baghdad; and 9.5 billion yen for an irrigation project aimed at improving agricultural production and increasing employment.

In an apparent bid to demonstrate its firm resolve to assist Iraqi reconstruction, Japan announced on Monday that it would extend an additional soft loan worth about 3.3 billion yen as part of the $5 billion aid package pledged in 2003. This loan will be used for construction of roads and bridges in Samawah.

Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is yiu45535@nifty.com.