Japan approves plan to send troops to Iraq

Noncombat ground forces to be most heavily armed since end of World War II


TOKYO - Japan decided yesterday to deploy ground forces to join the U.S.-led war in Iraq in what would be its most ambitious military operation since the end of World War II.

After months of agonizing, punctuated by the weekend state funeral of two diplomats gunned down in northern Iraq, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's Cabinet approved a plan to send up to 600 troops to southeastern Iraq in a mission to last from six months to one year.

The troops, though considered noncombat, will be the most heavily armed since Japan began tentatively dispatching its Self-Defense Forces overseas a decade ago. They will engage in humanitarian work, including establishing water and medical services, and rebuilding schools and other basic facilities.

The Defense Agency is expected to set a timetable for the deployment next week, although the mission is not likely to get under way until early next year.

In a news conference after the Cabinet decision, Koizumi explained the basis of the decision to a population that, according to polls, remains overwhelmingly opposed to it. Koizumi said that the situation in Iraq was "severe" but that Japan's Self-Defense Forces must "fulfill this mission."

"The ideals and the will of Japan as a nation are being questioned," Koizumi said. "Japan's spirit is being tested. We are no longer in a situation where we can only pay money. We must perform our utmost."

Koizumi underscored the importance of Japan's alliance with the United States, which kept Japan under its defense umbrella during the Cold War but has urged it to play a more active role internationally.

"The U.S. is Japan's only ally, and it is striving very hard to build a stable and democratic government in Iraq," he said. "Japan must also be a trustworthy ally to the U.S."

The deployment is regarded as a turning point for postwar Japan, whose pacifist reputation has been hard-won and whose soldiers have not stepped foot in a war zone since the nation forswore war more than 50 years ago. It comes as Japan gropes for security in a changing region, with the rise of China and the threat from North Korea.

For the United States, the addition of a small Japanese military force constitutes a big diplomatic victory. The war in Iraq, opposed by many of America's traditional allies, now has the imprimatur of war-renouncing Japan.

Under the plan, elements of Japan's ground, air and maritime units will go to Iraq. Eight aircraft, including C-130 cargo planes, will transport troops and supplies, and six ships, including two destroyers, will transport equipment.

Soldiers will be equipped with arms that Self-Defense Forces have never carried overseas, such as anti-tank weapons. They will also bring 200 armored and other vehicles. They are expected to be posted to Samawa, about 155 miles southeast of Baghdad, in a zone considered safer than the rest of the country.

"It is epoch-making in that it will combat against hostile parties," Toshiyuki Shikata, a former Ground Self-Defense general and now a professor at Teikyo University, said in a telephone interview. "This has never happened. It was too cowardly until now. The Self-Defense Force has become an ordinary military."

Koizumi twice delayed the deployment of troops after the attack against the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad and the killing of Italian troops in southeastern Iraq. Koizumi, who faced elections this fall, was also wary of a public opinion deeply opposed to sending troops.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan has criticized the plan, saying that troops should go to Iraq only as part of a U.N. peacekeeping operation. It argues that noncombat zones do not exist in Iraq, and the Self-Defense Forces will be drawn into combat, in violation of Japan's Constitution.

"We will stop the dispatch so that this will not become the first big misstep in the diplomatic and national security policies for the future of Japan," Democratic Party leader Naoto Kan said on television.

On Sunday, about 700 people demonstrated outside the prime minister's office, in a country where demonstrations are rare. Yesterday, a group of about 70 held another rally, and some criticized Koizumi for what they described as yielding to U.S. pressure.

"Koizumi says that we have to participate as part of our commitment to the international community, but that actually means only America," said Ken Takada, 58, leader of Citizens' Net, which has organized the rallies.

Hiroko Shibayama, 51, a part-time public worker, said, "I wonder if Japan is completely independent."

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