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Koizumi stands firm, citizens sceptical

Tokyo, Dec. 1 (Reuters): A stunned Japan mourned and debated whether to send troops to Iraq after two Japanese diplomats were killed in a weekend ambush near Saddam Hussein’s home town.

A poll published today showed most Japanese were opposed to the dispatch, at least until security improves.

But Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, re-elected less than a month ago, reiterated that Japan’s commitment to help rebuild Iraq would not waver.

“There is no change in our stance,” Koizumi told reporters.

“We must not be daunted by the intention of terrorists to halt the reconstruction effort and cause confusion,” he said, without giving a clue as to when the dispatch might occur.

Former defence minister Gen. Nakatani backed that view.

“Japan should not be the only country that does nothing. We must do our duty,” he told journalists.

The diplomats, who were travelling to a reconstruction conference in the northern town of Tikrit, were the first Japanese to die in Iraq since the US-led invasion.

They were among a dozen people from four US-allied nations killed in weekend attacks, sparking new concern among Washington’s allies about the risks of getting involved in Iraq.

About 500 Japanese foreign ministry officials joined in a brief memorial service at the ministry today.

After a moment of silence, a visibly upset foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi said: “We all share the same feeling. Something that should not have happened, something that is upsetting, something that is unbelievable has happened.”

The Japanese media reacted with anger and sadness to the deaths but were sharply divided over whether Koizumi should proceed with his plans to send troops.

The plan was already on hold after a bomb attack killed 19 Italians in southern Iraq last month.

“Why were these people, who loved Iraq and worked without regard for the danger, killed' The incident is all too painful. Whatever the reason, we cannot forgive the perpetrators,” the liberal Asahi Shimbun newspaper said in an editorial.

The Asahi said it was time for Koizumi to admit that conditions in Iraq did not meet the requirements of a law enacted in July to allow Japan to deploy non-combat troops there.

Japan has passed a law to allow troops to be sent to Iraq but because of the pacifist constitution they can be sent only to “non-combat zones” for reconstruction and humanitarian work. Japan’s cabinet had been expected to approve a basic plan for the dispatch — minus key details such as the scope and timing — as early as Friday.

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