| A street vendor dressed as a gladiator lays flowers at the tomb of the unknown soldier at Rome’s Piazza Venezia. (Reuters)
Tokyo, Nov. 13 (Reuters): Shocked by a deadly bomb attack on Italian troops in what had been seen as a relatively safe area of Iraq, Japan said today its planned dispatch of non-combat forces was not possible under existing conditions.
The bloodiest single attack on US-led coalition forces in Iraq since August put Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a close Washington ally, in a tight spot a day ahead of a visit to Tokyo by US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld.
At least 18 Italians and nine Iraqis were killed in the southern region where Japan’s troops were expected to be based.
“There should be a situation where our country’s Self-Defence Forces can conduct their activities fully,” chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference where he was grilled on the issue.
“But to our regret, the situation is not like that.” Asked whether the dispatch could be delayed until next year, Fukuda said: “That possibility has always existed.”
The US military said today another soldier had been killed in an attack in Baghdad, and American soldiers in the flashpoint town of Falluja came under fresh attack.
Grappling with an expanding insurgency, US forces hit back last night, using a Hercules aircraft to destroy a Baghdad warehouse thought to be used by guerrillas. Two Iraqis were also killed in a helicopter strike against a van used to launch mortar attacks on US forces.
Yasuao Fukuda had said yesterday that Tokyo was determined to send troops by year-end to help rebuild Iraq.
The Kyodo news agency quoted an unidentified source as saying that Japan believed its decision to not send troops soon would not hurt ties with the US and that pressure on Tokyo to make “visible contributions” to the Iraq reconstruction effort appears to have lessened.
Japan has pledged $5 billion in grants and loans to rebuild Iraq, making it the biggest donor after the US, and the source quoted by Kyodo said this may have soothed United States dissatisfaction with Japan’s caution about sending troops.
Japan enacted a law in July allowing the dispatch of troops to help with reconstruction and humanitarian activities.
However, the law stipulated that the military, whose overseas activities are curbed by Japan’s pacifist constitution, would only be sent to non-combat zones.
The planned dispatch of the military, which has not fired a shot in combat since 1945, is controversial in Japan, where many people opposed the US-led war in Iraq.
Koizumi, whose ruling coalition saw its majority shrink in a general election last weekend and who faces an Upper House poll in July, was non-committal.
“We will decide after looking carefully at the situation,” he said, using the phrase he has repeated for months.
A worsening security situation in Iraq and big gains in a weekend election by Japan’s opposition Democratic Party, which opposes the dispatch, had already fed speculation the government would delay sending an advance party to Iraq until next year. Critics say no distinction can be made between “combat zones” and “non-combat zones” in a country where more than 150 American troops have been killed since US President George W. Bush declared major combat over in May.
“The situation is returning to a state of war,” Democratic Party chief Naoto Kan said.