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Rumsfeld: self-rule does not mean quick troop withdrawal

Nevada Appeal Staff Reports

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan – The new accelerated plan for restoring self-rule in Iraq does not mean U.S. troops will withdraw anytime soon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday.

In an interview en route to a U.S. Air Force base in southern Japan, Rumsfeld was asked about the plan to restore Iraq’s sovereignty by June.

“The time table or the way ahead that the (Iraqi) Governing Council has been describing relates to the governance aspects of the country and not to the security aspects,” he said. “That’s on a separate track.”

Rumsfeld said the Unites States continues to plan to rotate a new contingent of troops into Iraq next year, with no final pullout date set yet. Accelerating the political process will not affect military planning, he said.

“This has nothing to do with U.S. troops and coalition troops in Iraq,” he said.

The plan, endorsed by the Iraqi Governing Council Saturday, reflects Washington’s desire to speed up the hand over of power as attacks against American occupation forces grow more sophisticated and deadly. It came as the U.S. death toll since the war began passed the 400 mark.

Rumsfeld was to meet later Sunday with Governor Keiichi Inamine of Okinawa, the southern island where a majority of the 47,000 Japan-based U.S. troops are stationed. He was also scheduled for a visit with U.S. troops, including Marines at Camp Foster, home of the 3rd Marine Division.

While the United States counts Japan among its strongest and most reliable allies, the presence of thousands of American troops on Japanese soil – often in urban areas whose residents are disturbed by the noise – is a source of friction.

Central to those tensions is the question of whether to extend fuller legal protections to U.S. service members accused of crimes.

The Pentagon chief planned to press anew for the Japanese government to relent on a long-sought U.S. demand for fuller legal protections for American service members accused of crimes while serving in Japan.

In Tokyo, Rumsfeld assured officials that North Korea would not be allowed to undermine Japan’s security. He said the foundation of the U.S.-Japan defense relationship remains strong.

Some in Japan have expressed concern that if the United States made security guarantees to North Korea – as the communist government is demanding in exchange for talks on its nuclear program, and as President Bush has suggested may happen – it could leave Japan even more vulnerable.

Rumsfeld said it was premature to talk about security guarantees for North Korea.

“I can say this: The United States government is not going to make any arrangements with any other country – that one or others – that would in any way undermine our security agreement with Japan,” he said.

At a joint news conference with Ishiba, head of Japan’s Defense Agency, Rumsfeld also thanked the government for the billions of dollars in humanitarian aid it has pledged for Iraq’s reconstruction. He gave no hint of disappointment at Japan’s delay in sending security troops to Iraq.

Ishiba said the government is closely monitoring the situation in Iraq and is inclined to send troops.

“We would like to do it as soon as possible,” he said.

A military fact-finding team left Tokyo for Iraq on Saturday to determine where and when it might be safe to send Japanese troops to help with reconstruction and other non-combat duties.

The mission came two days after Japanese government said it would delay long-discussed plans to send peacekeepers because of deteriorating security following a deadly suicide bombing in southern Iraq. Japanese media reported the mission had been hastily organized in a show of solidarity with Rumsfeld.

While the United States counts Japan among its strongest and most reliable allies, the presence of thousands of American troops on Japanese soil – often in urban areas whose residents are disturbed by the noise – is a source of friction.

Japan is the key to the U.S. defense strategy in Asia, along with South Korea, where there are about 37,000 American troops.

Japan is home to the U.S. Seventh Fleet, including the only aircraft carrier based permanently outside the United States, and the 374th Airlift Wing at Yokota Air Base north of Tokyo is the U.S. Air Force’s only air transport group of its kind in the Far East.

In recent years Japan has faced new questions about its vulnerability to attack from North Korea, which has ballistic missiles that can reach Japanese soil, as well as an active nuclear weapons program.

Rumsfeld has declined to say publicly what – if any – basing changes he wants to make in Japan. The main focus of change for U.S. basing in Asia has been South Korea, where troop reductions are likely.