Japan's Cabinet has approved draft legislation that would clear the way for Japanese troops to head to Iraq. The move is controversial in Japan, which has a pacifist constitution with restrictions on the military. If Parliament approves the legislation, Japanese troops would still be prohibited from engaging in combat.
The National Security Council and Cabinet gave approval Friday to a plan to send Japan's Defense Forces to help in post-war Iraq.
Under the proposed legislation to be submitted to lawmakers, Japanese troops would provide logistical support for U.S. and British forces tasked with maintaining order in Iraq. The Japanese would also render medical treatment and distribute food.
The move came after the government's major coalition partner, the Liberal Democratic Party, overcame divisions on rules of deployment. A provision was removed that would have had Japanese soldiers collecting and dismantling any weapons of mass destruction that might be found in Iraq.
The possibility of the Self Defense Forces being embroiled in a hostile situation overseas remains politically sensitive. That is because of restrictions on Japan's military in the Constitution imposed on it by the American occupation after World War II.
But Japan, in recent years, has taken steps to allow its troops to take part in U.N. peacekeeping missions and to support U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan.
The government says that to minimize the dangers to its forces, it will not allow its soldiers into any area that might be designated a combat zone, nor will they be allowed to refuel or maintain aircraft for combat operations.
But Defense Agency Chief Shigeru Ishiba says Japanese forces will not be sent into Iraq unarmed.
Mr. Ishiba says he would not dream of placing Japanese forces in a hostile place, without adequate weaponry to defend themselves and without the authority to use such firepower.
The current legislative session is scheduled to end next Wednesday. But many governing coalition members say it will have to be extended until at least mid-July to deal with this bill.
Political observers expect approval. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi shares that assessment. He says, since the Self Defense Forces will not be engaging in combat missions, there should be little left to debate.
The prime minister, speaking on Friday, says he is happy that such a broad consensus was quickly achieved among the governing factions.
Opposition politicians, although outnumbered in the Parliament, say they will make a last-ditch bid to scrap the bill, arguing constitutional concerns and, also, contending there is little merit to sending the forces, because there is really nothing of practical value they can do.
Last month, Mr. Koizumi agreed to a request from President Bush to put Japanese on the ground in Iraq to help with the country's reconstruction.