Members of Japan's air force left for the Middle East on Friday to lay the groundwork for the nation's dispatch of troops to Iraq in what may become its biggest and most dangerous military mission since World War Two.

The air force personnel are part of an advance team of around 40 members who are travelling to Kuwait and Qatar ahead of a larger unit expected to arrive in Iraq in January.

"I would like (the advance team) to make a great contribution in the field of activities related to reconstruction and aid. I hope they will achieve excellent results," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference.

Controversial plan

Although it was the first dispatch of personnel under a controversial government plan to have the military assist in the reconstruction of Iraq, the departure was hardly dramatic.

 Tokyo felt the pressure when two
 diplomats were killed in Iraq

The members of the advance team, wearing civilian clothes, left on a commercial flight from an airport near Tokyo, mixed among businessmen and tourists heading abroad for the New Year holidays.

The team will hold talks with members of the US-led coalition to prepare for the arrival of over 150 personnel and several transport planes in January.

When the main unit arrives it is expected to aid in transporting supplies between Kuwait and Iraq.

Public divided

The dispatch comes as surveys show that public opinion is deeply divided over the government's decision to send the military to Iraq.

More than half the respondents in recent polls said they opposed the dispatch plan, while around a third supported it.

The debate over whether to send troops intensified after two Japanese diplomats were gunned down in Iraq late last month.