U.S. asks Japan to extend Iraq deployment-report

Sat Jun 25,11:51 PM ET

TOKYO (Reuters) - The United States has asked Japan to extend its military deployment to
Iraq, a Japanese daily said on Sunday, following earlier reports that Tokyo was considering withdrawing its troops when their mandate ends in December.

The report comes after a roadside bomb targeted a convoy of Japanese military vehicles in Samawa in southern Iraq on Thursday. While the blast caused no casualties, it re-ignited concern in Japan about the troops' safety.

Japan decided last December to extend a mandate for their reconstruction and humanitarian aid mission until December 14 of this year. The mandate can be extended further by a decision by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's cabinet, to up to end-July 2007, when a domestic law allowing the dispatch expires.

The Asahi Shimbun daily, quoting a Japanese government source, said the State Department sounded out Japan's Foreign Ministry earlier this month about extending Japan's Iraq deployment beyond this year.

Senior Foreign Ministry officials discussed the issue last Monday but reached no decision, with some favoring cooperation with the United States and others concerned about worsening security, Asahi said.

"In the end, it will be a political decision," Asahi quoted a senior Foreign Ministry official as saying.

Following Thursday's bomb blast in Samawa, Koizumi -- a staunch ally of
President Bush -- said Japan was not considering a withdrawal.

While Koizumi has not said whether Japan would extend its military mission in Iraq beyond the current December mandate, media have reported that Japan may decide against an extension.

Kyodo news agency said last month that the government had begun making arrangements to withdraw Japanese troops from Iraq in December when their current mission mandate expires, and to switch to aid using mainly official development assistance.

If that is the case, Japan would have to announce a withdrawal plan by September, Kyodo quoted government sources as saying. Another possibility was for the government to extend the mission by three months or so and wait until the end of the year to indicate its plans for a withdrawal, Kyodo said.

Japan's dispatch of around 550 ground troops to Samawa for reconstruction and humanitarian aid is its riskiest military mission since World War II and has divided public opinion, with critics saying it violates Japan's pacifist constitution