Japan defence chief keen on Iraq visit

Tokyo's defence chief says he wants to visit Japanese troops deployed in southern Iraq in what would be the first trip by a high-ranking Japanese official to the war-torn country.

    Director-General Yoshinori Ohno: I want to look with my own eyes

    "I want to take a look with my own eyes but it is still unclear how it will be realised," Defence Agency Director-General Yoshinori Ohno said.

    He was responding to a report in Japan's Asahi Shimbun daily that he may visit Samawa as early as this weekend.

    Ohno did not give a date for his intended visit.

    About 600 Japanese troops have been on a non-combat humanitarian and reconstruction mission in Samawa, the nation's first deployment since the second world war to a country where there is ongoing combat.

    Extension expected

    The Iraq deployment is set to end on 14 December, but Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is widely expected to extend the mission despite domestic opposition.

    Japan has deployed about 600
    non-combat troops in Samawa

    The Asahi Shimbun said the government wanted Ohno to visit to demonstrate the need for Japanese activities in Samawa, a relatively calm city in Iraq.

    The Japanese base has been hit by shells, but without sustaining major damage. 

    And Japanese troops have not suffered any casualties, but five other Japanese have been killed in Iraq since the invasion - two diplomats, two journalists and, in October, a young tourist who was abducted and beheaded.

    Relatively safe

    Tsutomu Takebe, the number two at the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is also considering visiting Samawa with Ohno, along with his counterpart in its main coalition partner, the Buddhist-supported New Komeito, Japanese media said. 

    Takenori Kanzaki, leader of the New Komeito, visited Samawa in December 2003 shortly after the start of the deployment. He declared the town was "relatively safe" after a stay of less than four hours.

    It is rare for Japanese officials to visit war zones, although former foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi visited Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.

    SOURCE: AFP


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