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Japan bites Iraq troop bullet

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said the controversial plan, which critics have said is ill-conceived and violates Japan’s pacifist constitution, would allow the troops to assist in the reconstruction efforts but not to take part in combat. “They are going to help in humanitarian, reconstruction activities,” Koizumi told a televised news conference.

“They will not exercise military force, they are not going there to stage war,” he said after the cabinet approved the plan.

The decision, roundly attacked by Opposition parties, comes as surveys show that the vast majority of the public are opposed to sending troops now.

About half of voters surveyed by public broadcaster NHK last weekend, however, said they would back an eventual dispatch. Debate intensified after two Japanese diplomats were gunned down in Iraq late last month.

The Prime Minister has had to balance Japan’s tight security ties with the US, which is keen for the dispatch, with domestic concerns that increased after the diplomats’ deaths. “We have been put to the test to show with action, not just with words, our commitment both to the Japan-US alliance and international cooperation,” Koizumi said.

Just minutes before the cabinet approval, the US army said 31 American soldiers were wounded in northern Iraq when a car believed to be driven by a suicide bomber exploded at the entrance to their base.

No member of Japan’s military has fired a shot in combat or been killed in an overseas mission since World War Two, although they have taken part in UN peacekeeping operations since a 1992 law made that possible. The plan allows for the dispatch of up to 600 army personnel at any time during a one-year period starting December 15. It does not set a specific date when they will actually be sent.

That touchy decision will be made after Japan’s defence minister draws up a separate “action” plan, but the bulk of the troops are expected to be sent next year.

Ground forces are to be sent to southeastern Iraq, where Tokyo believes the security situation is stable. But the troops will be equipped with the heaviest artillery they have ever taken overseas, including portable anti-tank rocket launchers and recoilless guns as protection against possible suicide bomb attacks.

Today’s plan also says up to 200 vehicles including armoured vehicles, eight air force transport planes, two navy warships and two destroyers may be sent to Iraq. Japan’s constitution renounces the right to go to war and prohibits the nation from having a military, but has been interpreted as allowing Japan to have forces for self-defence.

The killing of the two diplomats near Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit and growing attacks against non-US personnel in Iraq have raised fears that Japanese troops may become targets if they are sent there.

Many Japanese also fear there could be terrorist attacks at home following reported threats by al Qaida to “strike at the heart of Tokyo” if Japan sends troops to Iraq.

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