The Japanese government says it wants to help reconstruct Iraq, but did not confirm media reports that Tokyo will endorse a plan to dispatch troops as early as next week.
Several Japanese newspapers on Thursday reported that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had approved a plan to start deploying about 1,000 troops to Iraq to help rebuild the war-torn country.
The reports also said that the cabinet and the head of the defense agency would endorse the plan as soon as next week. The endorsements are required before troops can be sent.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiro Okuyama says he cannot confirm the reports, but he suggests the government will make a decision very soon. The issue has generated tremendous controversy in Japan and dominated news headlines for several days.
"Japan would like to make appropriate contribution to the reconstruction and humanitarian assistance to Iraq including a possible dispatch of the self-defense force personnel," he said. "We will decide on this, what kind of functions [they will perform], what kind of personnel, for how long and to what areas in the country."
The deployment has become more uncertain since two Japanese diplomats were killed in Iraq on Saturday. The bodies of the two men, who died in an ambush, were returned to Japan on Thursday.
Their deaths shocked the country and heightened fears about the dangers that Japanese troops could face in Iraq. The public is sharply divided about sending troops and a recent newspaper poll showed the more than 80 percent of the public has reservations about the matter.
But the United States, which is leading the rebuilding effort in Iraq, hopes that its ally Japan will join the operations.
The U.S. ambassador to Japan, Howard Baker, told reporters Thursday he was glad that Tokyo may decide soon on details about sending troops. He said that even a small dispatch would have an important "symbolic effect."
"I don't think it matters so much whether it is three hundred people, one thousand people, or 30,000 people. It is an expression of national will and determination by Japan, and that will be well understood by terrorists and well appreciated by the rest of the world," the ambassador said.
But the decision presents a dilemma to Prime Minister Koizumi, who wants to support Washington without alienating voters.
No Japanese soldier has died in an overseas mission since World War II. The Japanese constitution limits the military's role to self-defense, and a special law passed in July allows troops to be deployed overseas, but only to safe areas.