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Japanese Cabinet Endorses Troop Deployment in Iraq - 2003-12-09

The Japanese government has endorsed sending members of its military to Iraq next year to aid the U.S. led reconstruction effort. But the government is leaving up in the air exactly when its forces will go. Despite public opposition, the Japanese cabinet on Tuesday endorsed the government's decision to send hundreds of troops to Iraq for six to 12 months.

At a news conference following the cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Japan must live up to its international responsibilities and its commitments to the United States. Mr. Koizumi says "we are not going to war." He says the situation in Iraq is difficult and not necessarily safe, but the Self-Defense Forces must still fulfill this mission.

Opposition parties condemn the plan, which will be the biggest deployment of Japanese troops overseas since the World War II. Democratic Party leader Naoto Kan on Tuesday vowed to stop the mission. About two-thirds of Japanese say they are against the deployment.

Just hours before the Cabinet approval, demonstrators outside Japan's Parliament expressed their opposition to the idea. Opposition to the mission grew late last month after two Japanese diplomats were killed in Iraq.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda says the precise role for the troops is still being worked out. Mr. Fukuda says the troops will support the reconstruction of Iraq by performing humanitarian work and providing health and welfare aid.

The Japanese are expected to operate around Samawah in southeastern Iraq, about 250 kilometers from Baghdad. The government says members of the Ground Self Defense Force will supply water and improve medical and education services in the region.

For the first time since World War II, Japanese troops outside the country will be equipped with anti-tank weapons. It will also be the first time since the war that they have gone to a country where fighting is still underway. Japanese troop deployments over the past five decades have been very limited by the country's pacifist Constitution. The Iraq mission was made possible by a special law passed in July.

The Defense Agency now must compile implementation guidelines, including exactly when the first units will ship out. The prime minister then will approve the guidelines - possibly early next week - and the Defense Agency will order the deployment. But government officials acknowledge the actual starting date for the mission is likely to be left open while the government tries to get a clearer picture of the security situation in Iraq.