Prime Minister Minister Yasuo Fukuda said Wednesday that Japan would halt its naval mission supporting U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and expressed a hope to resume it after the government resolved a political impasse blocking its extension.
Japan, America's top ally in Asia, has refueled coalition warships in the Indian Ocean since 2001, and U.S. officials have pressed for a continuation of the mission, which expires Thursday. Japan refueled its final ship on Monday.
"Our mission ends tomorrow, and our ships will be returning to Japan," Fukuda told reporters Wednesday. "I hope we quickly find ourselves in a situation where we can return to our duties."
The planned withdrawal comes after Fukuda and main opposition party leader Ichiro Ozawa failed to agree Tuesday on extending Japan's mission.
Ozawa's Democratic Party of Japan opposes the mission because it does not have the specific mandate of the United Nations. Critics also say the mission violates the country's U.S.-drafted pacifist Constitution, which forbids Japan from engaging in warfare overseas.
Fukuda has argued that pulling out of the mission would leave Japan, which depends on the Middle East for much of its oil, sidelined in the fight against global terrorism.
In an effort to placate the opposition, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is proposing narrowing the mission to refueling ships engaged in anti-terror patrols in the Indian Ocean. Until now, the mission also supported U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
The LDP - which controls the more powerful chamber of Japan's parliament, or Diet - could muscle through approval of a more limited mission, allowing Japanese ships to eventually return.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer urged the DPJ to ease its opposition to the mission.
"We tried to answer whatever question we could and to provide as much information we could to emphasize how important Japan's contribution is to what we're doing," Schieffer told reporters.
"I hope that after whatever debate goes on in the Diet, Mr. Ozawa will accept the fact that this is an international undertaking, and I hope that he will support it in the end," Schieffer said.
During its six-year mission, Japan provided about 480,000 kiloliters (126 million gallons) of fuel to coalition warships in the Indian Ocean, including those from the U.S., Britain and Pakistan, according to the Defense Ministry.