US steps up pressure over Japan's Afghan support

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TOKYO, Sep 12 (Reuters) Washington stepped up pressure on Japan on Wednesday to extend its mission supporting US-led operations in Afghanistan as opposition parties prepared to grill Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on an issue that could drive him from office.

The beleaguered prime minister has indicated that he would step down if he failed to extend the mission to refuel coalition ships patrolling the Indian Ocean, the legal mandate for which expires on November one.

Opposition parties, which won control of parliament's upper house in a July election, are against the mission.

Abe's ruling coalition could use its two-thirds majority in the lower house to override the upper chamber and extend the mission, but the bill is unlikely to pass before November 1.

The rarely used procedure could also spark a backlash that would prompt Abe either to resign or call a snap election for the powerful lower chamber, raising the possibility of a policy vacuum and uncertainty in financial markets.

US ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer raised the mission in back-to-back calls on Chief Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano and Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura.

''I expressed to him again the belief that this is a matter for the international community. It's not just an issue between the United States and Japan. Japan is making a vital and unique contribution to the war on terror. We certainly hope that it will continue,'' Schieffer told reporters after meeting Machimura.

''We simply have to do whatever we can to defeat terrorism,'' Schieffer added. ''This (Japan's mission) has been a vital part of that effort and we hope it will continue.'' Main opposition Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa has said he is against the law because it lacks a UN imprimatur and violates Tokyo's self-imposed ban on exercising the right to collective self-defence, or aiding an ally under attack.

Many analysts say Ozawa wants to use the issue to spark a snap election that the ruling coalition might well lose, but Schieffer told reporters the mission should not be a political football.

''I expressed to him my hope that this issue would be above partisan politics and that it would not become a part of the political infighting that's going on between the parties,'' he said after his meeting with the chief cabinet secretary.

Opinion polls show Japanese voters are divided over whether to extend the mission, with many saying they lack enough information to judge.

REUTERS CS VC0928

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