TOKYO, (Reuters) – Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari urged Japan on Thursday to extend the mandate of several hundred ground troops deployed to Samawa in southern Iraq to help rebuild the war-torn country.
The troops” current mission expires on Dec. 14, a day ahead of Iraq”s parliamentary election.
"Naturally, the time will eventually come for the multinational forces including Japan”s Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to end their activities," Zebari told his Japanese counterpart, Taro Aso, according to Japanese Foreign Ministry officials.
"We are at a crucial period now and we need their continued engagement."
Aso replied that Tokyo would make a decision soon on whether to extend the mandate. A ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) official said later that the mandate should be extended for a year, even if Japan might withdraw its troops before the end of that period.
"One year is the basic line. If you make it short, a re-extension may be needed but if you keep it long, it can be cut short," Kyodo news agency quoted senior LDP official Fumio Kyuma as telling reporters.
Japan has sent some 550 ground troops to Samawa in southern Iraq to provide reconstruction aid, the country”s first significant overseas military mission since World War Two.
Apart from the troop deployment, Tokyo has decided to waive about 710 billion yen ($6 billion) of its loans to Iraq, 80 percent of the total, and the two ministers signed an agreement on the debt relief measures.
The relief, in line with an agreement reached last November among the Paris Club of creditor nations, is expected to pave the way for Japan, Iraq”s largest creditor, to resume fresh loans of up to 3.5 billion yen to the country by the end of the current fiscal year ending next March 31, Kyodo news agency said.
Japan”s deployment of military personnel, first approved in 2003, helped cement close ties between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and U.S. President George W. Bush, although the troops are limited to humanitarian and reconstruction activities under Japan”s pacifist constitution.
The Asahi newspaper reported this month that Japan was considering beginning to withdraw its troops from Iraq in the first half of next year and completing the process by September. Japanese government officials said no decision had been made.
In a Mainichi newspaper poll published in October, 77 percent of those surveyed said they were opposed to an extension.
U.S. defence officials said on Wednesday that the Pentagon planned to shrink the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, currently 155,000, to about 138,000 after the Dec. 15 election and was considering reducing further to about 100,000 next summer if conditions allowed.