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Delay in Sending Japanese Troops to Iraq 'Understandable,' says Rumsfeld - 2003-11-15

Visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has expressed understanding over Japan's decision to delay the dispatch of troops to Iraq. The defense secretary made the comments during his second day of talks with Japanese officials.

The media here have made much of the timing of Japan's delay in dispatching troops to Iraq: the announcement was made just before the arrival of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The Bush Administration has requested Japan's help in Iraq, but the Pentagon is apparently trying to avoid the impression that it is upset or embarrassed by Japan's hesitation in sending non-combat forces.

Mr. Rumsfeld, speaking at a joint news conference Saturday with the director general of Japan's Defense Agency, Shigeru Ishiba, downplayed any U.S. disappointment with the delay.

"Each country needs to think through these issues and make judgments that are appropriate to their circumstance and their perspective and we are completely comfortable with that," he said. "And we're confident that our friend here, friends here in Japan will make decisions that are appropriate to them and that is what we want them to do."

Japanese officials insist the issue did not come up at all when Mr. Rumsfeld met with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi late Friday.

Mr. Ishiba told reporters on Saturday that Japan is watching the security situation in Iraq closely, especially in the aftermath of an attack on an Italian base near where the Japanese would be stationed.

He says the Japanese government would like to send a contingent of its Self Defense Forces as soon as possible, but it will decide on the timing in a cautious and appropriate manner.

Mr. Ishiba indicated there was one related difference of opinion between the two allies - and that concerns the role of the United Nations in Iraq. He hinted that it would be easier to send Japanese troops if the deployment were under a U.N. umbrella. Mr. Rumsfeld also met with Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi on Saturday, and assured her and other cabinet members that if the United States eventually gives North Korea the security guarantees Pyongyang demands in return for the scrapping of its nuclear ambitions, such guarantees would not undermine the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

The defense secretary also had soothing words for the Japanese concerning a possible reduction of the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in their country. He acknowledged discussions about cutting the number of troops on Okinawa, where there is considerable unhappiness with the U.S. presence. But both Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Ishiba told reporters that such plans are still in the early stage.

Mr. Rumsfeld will make a brief visit to U.S. troops on Okinawa on Sunday before flying to South Korea for talks with government officials there.