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Official backs operation in Afghanistan

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Japanese Defense Minister Yuriko Koike said yesterday Tokyo remained committed to its role in the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan despite major political gains last month by an opposition party that has demanded an end to the mission.

Miss Koike, in Washington this week for talks with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, acknowledged that the opposition Democratic Party of Japan could vote to end the Afghan support mission, whose mandate expires Nov. 1.

"I am still hoping the [opposition] will only request changes to the mission, and then we can have discussions on how to accommodate their demands," said Mrs. Koike, appointed last month by embattled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as Japan's first female defense chief.

Answering questions through a translator after a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Miss Koike sharply criticized opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, who earlier this week rejected a personal appeal from U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer to soften his objections to Japan's support role in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The deployments are contentious in Japan, which still operates under the pacifist constitution written by American advisers after World War II. In his meeting with Mr. Schieffer, Mr. Ozawa denounced the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts as "American wars" and said he would only support an extension of the Afghan mission if the operation was sanctioned by the United Nations.

Miss Koike called Mr. Ozawa's criticisms "inconsistent," noting he had backed Japan's role in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War coalition against Saddam Hussein. She said his arguments about an expanded Japanese military role in the region and the world "seem to be stuck in the past."

Miss Rice, who met with the Japanese minister yesterday, said the Bush administration would strongly support a renewal of Japan's military missions, which includes refueling of U.S. war jets from Japanese ships stationed in the Indian Ocean and airlift services by Japanese forces in Kuwait for U.S. and coalition personnel into Iraq.

Miss Rice "made it clear that this is, of course, a Japanese decision, but we welcome Japan's continuing support for the mission," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters yesterday.

The Democratic Party seized control of the upper house of the Japanese Diet in elections late last month after Mr. Abe was weakened by scandals and political missteps.

The more powerful lower house, still controlled by Mr. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), can override the upper house, but now must secure a two-thirds majority vote to do so.

In Tokyo, Mr. Abe stepped up his criticism of Mr. Ozawa, a longtime political kingmaker in Japanese politics who broke with the ruling LDP in 2003. Abe spokesman Yasuhisa Shiozaki condemned Mr. Ozawa's statement that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan lacked international backing.

"It is not a war that the United States started selfishly on its own, but one of the most important tasks that the international community has to cope with," Mr. Shiozaki said.

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