Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged Japan on Thursday to resume a naval mission in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan that has been stalled by a domestic political controversy.

The Japanese refueling mission was halted this month after government and opposition could not agree to renew it.

Aware of Japanese opposition criticism that it lacks a United Nations mandate, Gates portrayed the Japanese mission as part of a comprehensive international effort.

This is not really a bilateral matter between the United States and Japan, but rather Japan's contribution to a broad international coalition that is involved in trying to bring freedom, and keep freedom, in Afghanistan, Gates said.

More than 40 countries involved in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan benefited directly or indirectly from Japan's mission, he said after talks with Japanese leaders in Tokyo.

We are grateful for this international role that Japan has played and we appreciate the efforts of the government to renew the fuelling operation, he said.

Over the six years of the mission, Japan has supplied free fuel and water worth about 22 billion yen ($195 million) to U.S. and other coalition ships patrolling the Indian Ocean for drug runners, gun smugglers and suspected terrorists.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda wants to pass legislation to resume the mission, but opposition Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa has so far refused, arguing a U.N. mandate is needed.


Seeking to build domestic support for the mission, Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba said it was consistent with Japan's national interest and its responsibilities to the international community.

If the suspension continues for a long time, our position on the war against terror may be perceived as passive, he said at a news conference with Gates. This would not be to the benefit of our country.

Japanese voters are divided over the mission. The Democrats and their allies have vowed to vote against a new bill in parliament's upper house, where they have a majority and can delay bills.

Faced with that obstacle, parties in the ruling coalition agreed on Thursday to extend the current session of parliament, set to end on November 10, until December 15.

Japanese ships have supplied about 7 percent of the fuel to the U.S.-led coalition in the past few years, Washington says.

While that figure is a small proportion of the total, the United States argues it is still an important contribution to the war on terrorism declared by President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks.

U.S. officials said they hoped Gates' visit would help switch the focus away from disputes on individual topics in favor of a broader view of the importance of cooperation between the United States and Japan on security issues.

Gates, who visited China and South Korea earlier this week, had lunch with U.S. military personnel, part of a contingent of some 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan.

($1=112.90 yen)

(Editing by Roger Crabb)