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Japan to Move Forward with Troop Deployment in Iraq - 2004-01-05

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has pledged to move forward with the country's planned military deployment to Iraq -- its largest since World War Two. The Japanese leader used his New Year address to calm public fears over the unprecedented humanitarian mission.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi vowed his country would do everything possible to help build a democratic Iraq. In his New Year policy speech Monday, he said Japanese troops are preparing for this humanitarian mission, despite security risks involved. He says Iraq is not necessarily safe and troops have to take on difficult tasks that may involve dangerous work. But, he says, every possible safety measure will be employed.

A 15-member team from the Japanese Air Force is now in Kuwait, preparing for a larger deployment of about a thousand Self Defense Forces. Most will start to arrive in southern Iraq in February, where they will support the U.S.-led effort to rebuild the war-torn nation.

Japanese troops will provide humanitarian assistance in non-combat areas only, since Japan's pacifist constitution forbids them from taking part in international conflicts, except in self-defense. However, parliament passed a special law last year allowing soldiers to carry weapons, which may be used if attacked.

Mr. Koizumi's government has tried to reassure the worried public about the safety of the mission. A majority of citizens oppose the deployment, fearing casualties or that terrorists will retaliate by attacking Tokyo, as they have already threatened.

A Monday poll in the Mainichi newspaper found 53-percent of those surveyed say Japan's troops should be recalled if they suffer casualties. Japanese troops have not operated in a combat zone since World War II, nor have they suffered a single combat casualty since then.

But Mr. Koizumi says by helping Iraq build a democratic government, Japan would be contributing to global peace and security.