Japan has sent a small military advance team to the Middle East to prepare for a larger humanitarian mission to Iraq in January. This will be Japan's largest troop deployment since World War II. The Japanese public opposes the dispatch, fearing troop casualties and terror attacks.
Japan on Friday sent an advance Air Force contingent to Qatar and Kuwait. The group of more than 40 personnel left on commercial flights, instead of military planes.
The team will assess security and prepare for a larger contingent scheduled to arrive in Iraq next month. It will be the first time since World War II that a Japanese military unit will operate in a nation where battles are in progress.
Japan's post-war constitution bars its military from using force in international conflicts. But this deployment is authorized under a new law, passed this year, to allow troops to be sent to non-combat zones. They may carry and use weapons, but only in self-defense.
Government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda summarized the goal of the mission at a Friday news conference. He says the government wants the military to make big contributions to Iraqi reconstruction and humanitarian assistance, and it expects them to fulfill their duties and make major contributions.
The dispatch has been in the works for months and remains highly controversial. Many Japanese fear that terrorists will make good on threats to launch retaliatory attacks in Japan. They also fear casualties among the troops. Not a single Japanese soldier has died in combat since World War II.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has stressed the importance of the dispatch to support U.S.-led coalition forces now trying to stabilize Iraq.
His government has also offered five billion dollars in grants and loans to help rebuild the war-torn country - a contribution second only to what the United States is providing. The Japan Defense Agency also plans to deploy armored vehicles, as many as six naval vessels and eight aircraft.
But Mr. Koizumi was eager to do more than just give money. During the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, the international community criticized Japan for sending aid money, but no troops.