Japan panel votes to restart Afghan mission

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TOKYO, Nov 12 (Reuters) A Japanese parliamentary committee today approved a bill to restart a naval mission supporting US-led operations in Afghanistan, but it faced rejection by the upper house, which could trigger a snap general election.

The lower house committee vote came ahead of a visit this week by Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to Washington, which wants Tokyo to resume refuelling of US and other ships patrolling the Indian Ocean for drug runners and suspected terrorists.

The Japanese mission was halted this month after government and opposition failed to agree to renew it.

The ruling coalition commands a strong majority in the lower house and the bill is expected to pass in the full lower house tomorrow and then be sent to the opposition-dominated upper house.

''We will strive to secure understanding from the upper house, especially from the opposition parties so that we can resume our refuelling activity as soon as possible,'' Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told reporters after the committee's vote.

The opposition Democratic Party, the largest force in the upper house, has vowed to oppose the bill.

However, its position has been weakened after its leader suddenly announced his resignation last week, only to retract it days later, after a failed attempt at forming a grand coalition with Fukuda's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Analysts said the public embarrassment has hurt the Democrats' chances at the next general election and that the ruling LDP may call a snap election to take advantage of it.

''For the LDP, it is now advantageous to call an election,'' said Jiro Yamaguchi, a political science professor at Hokkaido University.

A survey conducted by broadcaster TV Asahi over the weekend showed that 42 per cent of respondents favoured an LDP-centred government as a result of the next lower house election, against 38 per cent who preferred to see the Democrats in power.

The LDP has stepped up the heat on the opposition, and its secretary-general Bunmei Ibuki said yesterday that a snap election was ''one option'' should the Democrats block passage of the naval mission bill in the upper house or submit a censure motion against Fukuda.

The current session of parliament runs until December. 15.

No election for the lower house be held until 2009, but given the divided parliament, a poll is widely expected sometime next year, possibly after the budget is enacted late in March.

Ibuki also said it was important to enact the budget, and the LDP's junior coalition partner, whose support many LDP lawmakers count on, are against an early general election.

REUTERS PD RK1430

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