updated 12/9/2004 9:57:19 PM ET 2004-12-10T02:57:19

Japan will keep its troops in Iraq for another year, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced Thursday, arguing that extending the unpopular mission — the military’s most dangerous overseas deployment since World War II — is a necessary duty.

Koizumi said he had “no doubts” the mission was essential to Iraq’s reconstruction and the security of Japan, which depends closely on its top ally, the United States.

“The Iraqis are trying to build a government with their own hands. We must support this. The Self-Defense Forces are needed for this end,” he said in a nationally televised address.

The prime minister, who staunchly backed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, added, “Japan cannot ensure its peace and independence on its own.”

“We must not isolate the United States. We must create an environment in which the United States can cooperate with the world,” Koizumi said. About 50,000 U.S. troops are based in Japan under a security treaty.

500 non-combat troops
Koizumi spoke after the Cabinet voted to keep Japan’s 500 non-combat troops in southern Iraq to purify water and rebuild infrastructure. The troops were sent to Iraq in January, the largest overseas mission for Japan’s postwar military.

Opinion polls show about half of Japanese citizens oppose the deployment for fear they could be drawn into the fighting. Other surveys have shown that about 50 percent backed withdrawing the troops when the current mission’s mandate expires next week.

About 20 protesters gathered in front of parliament after the decision and submitted a written demand to Koizumi’s office that the troops be brought home, said Tatsuya Yoshioka, director of Peace Boat, an activist group.

“It’s completely ridiculous and illogical,” Yoshioka said, maintaining the government was placing more importance on the U.S.-Japanese alliance than on the lives of Japanese citizens.

Larger protest planned
Plans for larger protests were under way for Dec. 14, the date the mission was set to expire.

Opposition leaders have opposed the dispatch, arguing that the troops were deployed in a war zone even though by law they were authorized only to operate in a non-combat area. Critics also say the deployment violates the spirit of Japan’s pacifist constitution, which forswears the use of force to settle international disputes.

Katsuya Okada, head of the opposition Democratic Party, called the decision to extend the mission “extremely regrettable.”

Koizumi insisted that the area where the troops are based was a non-combat zone and said ordinary Iraqis were grateful for the humanitarian work done by the Japanese forces.

“The Japanese forces have not had to fire one shot, they have not had to point their guns once,” Koizumi said.

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