Japan's defense chief left his country Friday on a trip to visit Japanese troops in Iraq, news reports said, amid rising expectations that Tokyo would extend its mission into next year. Citing unidentified government sources, Kyodo News agency said Nukaga will inspect the 600 troops Japan has dispatched to the southern Iraqi city of Samawah on a humanitarian mission to purify water and rebuild schools. Several other news agencies said Nukaga was scheduled to arrive in Iraq as early as Saturday, via London. Officials at the Defense Agency said they could not comment on the reports, citing security concerns. On Friday morning, the minister told a news conference he had no plans to visit Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is scheduled to visit Tokyo on Monday for talks with his counterpart Junichiro Koizumi on Japan's support for Iraq's reconstruction and the role of Japanese troops in Samawah, the Foreign Ministry has said.
Japan's mission to Iraq expires Dec. 14, but Tokyo hasn't decided whether to renew it. Kyodo reported Wednesday that Koizumi's Cabinet would decide on Dec. 8 to allow the troops to stay for an additional year, but that the government still could decide later to withdraw the troops around May. Iraq's Foreign Minister Hohshyar Zebari has already visited Japan to urge it to extend the deployment.
The mission, Japan's largest overseas mission since World War II, is increasingly unpopular with the public. Many Japanese have criticized the deployment as a violation of the country's pacifist constitution and say it has made Japan a target for terrorism. Support for the mission dropped to 22 percent from 33 percent, the newspaper said. No margin of error was provided. Koizumi favors a more active role for Japan in international security, however, and has suggested that Japan's efforts in Iraq aren't finished. In October, Japan approved a one-year extension of its naval mission to support U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has also proposed a constitutional change that would allow the Japanese military to assist the country's allies and help with armed international peacekeeping, informs the AP. N.U.