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2ND LD: Koizumi addresses ASDF prior to dispatch to Iraq.

KOMAKI, Japan, Dec. 24 Kyodo

(EDS: ADDING KOIZUMI ADDRESS)

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) base at Komaki, Aichi Prefecture, on Wednesday amid tight security to deliver a pep talk to ASDF personnel to be sent to Iraq as the first unit of Japan's noncombat troop deployment.

''Your families are more proud than anyone of your decision to perform the dangerous duty of helping Iraqi people create a democratic government,'' Koizumi said in a send-off ceremony.

''I hope you return safely,'' said Koizumi, who as prime minister is also supreme commander of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). His remarks reflect public concerns in Japan about the safety of SDF members to be sent to Iraq.

With Defense Agency Director General Shigeru Ishiba also attending the ceremony, the atmosphere was tense outside the base in the central Japan city. A 2-meter-high iron gate was erected in front of the main gate and riot police were put on standby in the area.

About 30 student activists read out a protest message in which they called on the government not to dispatch the SDF, saying they would just be taking part in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The government plans to dispatch troops from later this month, with the ASDF advance team set to leave Japan on or after Friday.

The send-off ceremony marks the beginning of preparations for full participation in Iraq's reconstruction. On Dec. 9, Koizumi's cabinet decided on a basic plan to dispatch SDF troops to the country to provide humanitarian and reconstruction assistance.

The team will assess the local security situation in Iraq before the core ASDF units, comprising about 150 members, are dispatched, possibly in January.

Some senior officers at the ASDF base and other personnel voiced mixed feelings about their imminent departure to Iraq.

One ASDF officer in his 40s said he would not be in the advance team but that all SDF members should be ready to go to Iraq, saying, ''We cannot let civilians die any more.''

He was referring to an incident last month in which two Japanese diplomats and their Iraqi driver died in an attack in northern Iraq.

''But if I'd been selected, I'd feel I wouldn't want to go,'' he said.

An officer at the base indicated it was hard to select the dispatch team because some candidates have young children.

The team was formed following the ASDF dispatch order given by Ishiba on Friday to Lt. Gen. Seiji Kagawa, commander of the ASDF'S Air Support Command. Members were chosen from around the country, but mainly from the Komaki base where the C-130 transport aircraft unit is stationed.

The core units will help transport food and medical supplies between Kuwait and Baghdad and other airports in Iraq.

The SDF dispatch has been a politically sensitive issue in Japan given its war-renouncing Constitution. The recent deaths of the two Japanese diplomats also increased concerns in Japan over security in Iraq.
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Publication:Japan Policy & Politics
Date:Dec 29, 2003
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