TOKYO (Reuters) - Vice President Dick Cheney said on Wednesday the United States wants to finish its mission in Iraq and “return with honor”, despite the war’s growing unpopularity at home and doubts among U.S. allies.
Cheney, whose visit to Tokyo comes just weeks after Japan’s defense minister said starting the Iraq war was a mistake, also insisted Americans would not back a “policy of retreat”.
The defense minister’s remarks forced Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to scurry to reassure Washington that Tokyo’s backing for U.S. policy in Iraq was unchanged, although most Japanese think that President Bush was wrong to start the war.
“We know that terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength, they are invited by the perception of weakness,” Cheney said in a speech aboard the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier at Yokosuka Navy Base near Tokyo.
“We know that if we leave Iraq before the mission is completed, the enemy is going to come after us,” Cheney said.
“And I want you to know that the American people will not support a policy of retreat,” he added. “We want to complete the mission, we want to get it done right, and we want to return with honor,” said Cheney, who heads on Thursday for Australia to meet Prime Minister John Howard, another backer of Bush’s Iraq policy.
Bush is sending 21,500 more troops to Iraq, but surveys show that most Americans are unhappy with the war and Democrats in charge of the U.S. Congress are pressing for a new strategy.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair was to announce on Wednesday a timetable for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, a government source said in London, adding that Britain’s 7,100-strong Iraq force would fall to 5,500 by year’s end.
In talks earlier with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki, Cheney thanked Japan for the roughly 550 non-combat troops it sent to southern Iraq in 2004 as part of Tokyo’s largest and riskiest overseas mission since World War Two.
The soldiers came home last July, but about 200 Japanese air force personnel based in Kuwait are still transporting supplies to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
A Japanese Foreign Ministry official told reporters that Cheney and Abe had agreed on the need to “closely monitor” China’s military capacity in space after its satellite-killing test last month, the first known such test in space in 20 years.
The two leaders also shared concerns about Beijing’s rapid military buildup and its lack of transparency, the official said.
Cheney sought to allay any fears that Washington’s commitment to Japan and the Asia-Pacific region would falter.
“The president asked me to make this journey, first to Japan, then to Guam, and then to Australia ... to reaffirm America’s deep commitment to a forward presence in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said in his speech on the Kitty Hawk.
The United States has some 50,000 troops based in Japan, about half its total military presence in the region.
The two allies agreed last year to reorganize those forces, including shifting 8,000 Marines from Japan’s southern island of Okinawa to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam by 2014.
On attempts to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Cheney and Shiozaki agreed in their talks that a six-party energy-for-arms agreement forged in Beijing last week was a step in the right direction, a Japanese statement said.
Cheney expressed understanding for Tokyo’s refusal to provide economic aid to Pyongyang until progress was made on resolving a feud over Japanese citizens kidnapped by the North’s agents decades ago, the statement added.
“We want to see resolution to the tragic case of Japanese abductees,” Cheney said at the start of his talks with Abe.
Abe’s critics have said Tokyo risked international isolation with its tough stance if denuclearisation talks made progress.
Under the deal between the United States, China, Japan, the two Koreas and Russia, Pyongyang is to receive fuel aid in return for shutting down and disabling its nuclear facilities.
Cheney, who last visited Japan in 2004, is not scheduled to meet outspoken Defense Minister Kyuma.
He will, however, find time in his tight schedule to meet the parents of one Japanese abductee early on Thursday, before leaving for Guam and then Australia.
Additional reporting by Linda Sieg and George Nishiyama