TOKYO -- Japan's government agreed yesterday to scrap Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu's attempt to send soldiers to help the U.S.-led force confronting Iraq in the Persian Gulf.
The decision, reported by several Japanese newspapers and broadcast stations that cited unnamed sources within the governing Liberal Democratic Party, coincided with an announcement in Baghdad that 79 of the 305 Japanese hostages now being held in Iraq would soon be released. There was no clear sign whether the two events were connected.
Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has been in Baghdad for meetings with President Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi officials for three days, at precisely the time when Mr. Kaifu's plan to send troops to the gulf has been unraveling here, but his trip has not stirred the international controversy aroused by a similar mission by Germany's former chancellor, Willy Brandt.
Faced with poll results showing overwhelming popular opposition to Mr. Kaifu's bill, and with implacable resistance from other parties that control the upper house of the Diet, Japan's parliament, leaders of the governing Liberal Democratic Party agreed instead to invite their opponents to work jointly on means to contribute to international peacekeeping efforts.
After two months of squabbling over Japan's role in the Middle East effort, yesterday's decision also seemed to raise serious questions about Mr. Kaifu's political position.
Almost since Aug. 2, when Mr. Hussein sent Iraqi troops into Kuwait, Mr. Kaifu has been forced to deal with deep disagreements within his own party, even over the amounts of money Japan would contribute, as well as with loud, determined attempts by opposition parties to defeat any attempt to send troops overseas.
At the same time, the United States and other Western partners have pressed hard for a "physical presence" of Japanese on the ground as a token of this country's commitment to the gulf effort.
"It isn't enough just to write another check," Michael Armacost, the U.S. ambassador here, has said repeatedly, echoing statements made by other Bush administration officials in Washington.