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Japanese Troops Arrive in Baghdad; First Overseas Deployment Since WWII - 2004-02-08

A contingent of Japanese troops arrived in Iraq Sunday, in their first overseas assignment since the end of World War II. The controversial deployment will be a test for the Japanese leadership at home.

Around 80 Japanese soldiers crossed the Iraqi border from Kuwait Sunday in a convoy of 25 jeeps and armored vehicles. The soldiers are non-combat troops authorized to operate in Iraq on a humanitarian mission to help with the re-building of the country.

In Japan, the safety of its troops is a major concern. Even though the Iraq war has officially ended, there have been continuous attacks against American and other coalition soldiers. Any Japanese casualties would surely be a political liability for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The advance team that arrived Sunday is part of a contingent that will eventually total 800 and be based in the southern Iraqi town of Samawa. Most are engineers supplied by the Japanese Air Force and a naval contingent based in Kuwait.

The Japanese soldiers in Iraq are heavily armed, like other coalition troops, but their officers say they will only use their weapons to defend themselves if attacked.

Mr. Koizumi has faced strong opposition to the deployment at home by many who say it violates Japan's pacifist constitution, which prohibits its troops from operating in a combat zone. No Japanese soldier has fired a shot in combat since the end of World War II in 1945.

During the first Gulf War, Japan sent no troops but did contribute money to the war effort.

The Japanese troops operating in Iraq will be providing medical services, repair the area's water supply system and help in other reconstruction projects.