| A girl looks for her father during the send-off ceremony in Tokyo. (AFP)
Tokyo, Jan. 16 (Reuters): A team of Japanese soldiers left for Iraq today as police, on alert for terrorist attacks, tightened security ahead of what may become Japan’s riskiest overseas military mission since World War Two.
After a series of send-off ceremonies in Tokyo, about 30 members of the Ground Self-Defence Force, as Japan’s army is called, left for southeastern Iraq, an advance unit of a force that could include up to 1,000 troops.
“You’re the pride of the Japanese people, the pride of the nation. I hope that you will complete your mission safely,” defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, at times appearing almost overcome by emotion, told 180 soldiers — including those leaving today and others to join them later.
The dispatch marks a historic shift from Japan’s purely defensive post-war security policy and poses a big political risk for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Koizumi says Japan, as a member of the international community, has a responsibility to help in Iraq.
But the public is largely against sending the troops and the government could face a backlash if there are casualties.
About 100 relatives and top military brass attended the send-off ceremony. Most family members appeared cheerful, chatting and snapping pictures of the soldiers with their camera-phones.
A few demonstrators passed out leaflets near the defence ministry criticising the dispatch.
Police kept them apart from a small group of Right-wing activists who were shouting: “Japanese troops, do your best.”
Critics say sending the troops violates Japan’s pacifist constitution. The public was shocked when two Japanese diplomats were gunned down in northern Iraq late last year.
But Koizumi has effectively staked his career on the dispatch in order to cement ties with Japan’s most important security ally, the US, at a time of rising concern about the threat from nearby North Korea’s nuclear programme.
“Public opinion is divided for and against the dispatch to Iraq. But the dispatch is not to take part in war, the use of force, or combat,” Koizumi told a meeting of his Liberal Democratic Party.
“Japan cannot ensure its security and peace on its own,” he said. “It is not necessary to shed blood, but it is Japan’s responsibility as a member of the international society to sweat, to cooperate with funds and to make a human contribution.”
A law enacted last July allows the troop dispatch, but in line with the pacifist constitution it limits the military’s activity to “non-combat zones”, a murky concept in Iraq, where there are almost daily attacks on US forces and their allies.
The troops are expected to arrive in Kuwait tomorrow and travel overland later in the month to the southern Iraqi city of Samawa, where they will engage in humanitarian and reconstruction operations, Japanese media said. The main body of about 600 ground troops will probably set off from late January. A Russian charter aircraft left Hokkaido in northern Japan today for Kuwait carrying eight light armoured vehicles.
Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of US forces in Iraq, welcomed the Japanese contribution to the peacekeeping operation, saying they would be a valuable addition to the US-led coalition.