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TOKYO — Despite the deaths last week of two Japanese diplomats in Iraq, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard H. Baker Jr. says it’s important Japan solidify its spot on the global stage by committing Self-Defense Forces personnel to reconstruction efforts.

Baker, addressing a packed floor Thursday at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, said a Japanese dispatch would have a resounding impact in Iraq, even if only symbolic.

“It means the coalition against terrorism is extended by the second-largest economy in the world,” he said. “The unity to face down terrorism is intact. Japan is showing it is a full participant in the affairs of the world and it has the courage to face the threat of terrorism in the world.

“It would be an expression of national pride, regardless if Japan sends 300, 3,000 or 30,000 troops. The terrorists will understand.”

Baker also reminded Japan of a possible benefit of international engagement: He reaffirmed U.S. advocacy of Japan’s permanent placement on the U.N. Security Council.

“You are a great superpower, and your responsibilities are great as well,” Baker said. “Prime Minister Koizumi is up to the challenge of defining Japan as a great nation.”

Japan wouldn’t be involved in direct combat but would assume a prominent role in rebuilding infrastructure and boosting stability, Baker said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported Thursday that Japan plans to deploy 1,100 Self-Defense Forces troops to Iraq, possibly as early as this month.

Baker’s speech came less than a week after two Japanese diplomats and their Iraqi driver were gunned down in northern Iraq.

“I want to extend my deepest sympathies and condolences to the families of the diplomats who lost their lives in Iraq,” Baker said of the Saturday shootings. “We share in the grief of the families and all the Japanese people in this loss of two brave people. Their loss is a further illustration of the terrible face of terrorism.”

Baker praised Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for his support of the war on terrorism.

He said Japan’s monetary contribution to the effort ranks in the top five among U.S. allies, and has led directly to reopening Iraqi institutions such as hospitals, courts, phone service, schools and universities.

The 78-year-old former U.S. senator, appointed ambassador by President Bush in June 2001, said he believes the U.S.-Japanese bond is “the best it’s ever been.”

“We are the two most powerful, vibrant economies in the world,” Baker said. “We share in that but we also have a distinct responsibility to provide for the defense of the free world.

“The results are not assured. The contribution to our mutual security and defense will occur only if we face up to the challenges. We must stand as a bastion of freedom and opportunity.”

Baker cautioned Japan to remain diligent in the fight against new world terrorism, even in the face of al-Qaida’s recent reported threats against Tokyo.

“Nine-11 changed all our lives,” he said. “Terrorism is the scourge of our times, an uncertain reality we all must deal with. Terrorism knows no boundaries, respects no people. We do understand the importance of working together, so terrorism does not prevail.

“The ultimate deterrent to terrorism is strength, resolve and determination. We must address these threats where they occur — whether it’s terrorism or North Korea with its nuclear capabilities.”

Baker is most bothered by the latter, he sad.

The United States is committed to resolving the lingering North Korean crisis through diplomatic means, but Baker said he worries about potential accidents, such as an irrational act by a soldier along the Demilitarized Zone or a breakdown within the reclusive communist nation’s political or governmental structure.

“We have very strong evidence that the North Koreans were telling the truth when they said they had nuclear weapons,” Baker said. “It’s an unstable political regime. Nuclear weapons in the hands of an unstable regime are a very dangerous proposition. There are bad things that might still happen, but they haven’t happened yet.

“I hope the six-party talks will resume, and I hope we can solve it by diplomatic means. The U.S. is committed to that, but the United States has been remarkably patient, given the provocations by the North Koreans that they have nuclear weapons.”

As for the U.S. military’s future in Japan, including Okinawa, Baker said troop reduction is a possibility. That decision may emerge from a Defense Department study on repositioning forces to meet new global threats.

Still, one constant will remain.

“Nothing we do will diminish our commitment to the security of Japan,” Baker said. “We may move some forces and equipment around here and there, but our fundamental commitment will remain. We’re here to protect Japan.”

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