Japan's reconnaissance team to Iraq returned home on Thursday, and was expected to report that it was safe enough to send Japanese ground troops to the southern city of Samawa.

  

A spokesman for the Defence Agency confirmed that a few members of the dozen-strong mission would remain in Kuwait to prepare for the eventual dispatch of troops as liaison officers. This could still take place this year, if conditions allowed.

 

The Japanese contingent went last week to camp Smitty in the suburbs of Samawa, some 270 kilometers (165 miles) southeast of Baghdad, where they were guests of a Dutch force with the US-led coalition.

 

They were expected to report that it was safe enough to send

Japanese ground troops to the city as it is relatively small and

difficult for intruders or insurgents to infiltrate, news reports

said.

 

Public opposition

 

On Tuesday Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reiterated his

pledge Tuesday to send troops to help rebuild Iraq, despite polls showing overwhelming public opposition.

 

But as the insurgency against the US-led occupation forces has intensified the government has shied away from fixing a firm date.

 

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said on Thursday the

government might approve a basic plan to dispatch troops, without setting a date.

 

"We want to send troops as soon as possible. We may dispatch troops within this year if the situation allows," he said.