Japan's defence chief has acknowledged public opinion is divided on sending troops to Iraq but says the risky deployment is vital to the national interests of Japan, which depends on the Middle East for oil.
Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba is expected to order soon, perhaps on Friday, the dispatch of an advance team of about 30 army personnel to southern Iraq, in what could be Japan's biggest and riskiest overseas mission since World War Two.
"We depend on the Middle East for some 90% of our oil supply. Therefore we must absolutely avoid a situation in which the Middle East is politically unstable and becomes a haven for terrorists and weapons of mass destruction," Ishiba told a news conference on Thursday.
The advance team, which could leave for Samarra in southern
Iraq via Kuwait around 16 January, will act as scouts for a force that could include up to 600 soldiers and 1000 personnel in all.
The deployment is a big political gamble for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who is keeping a promise to the United States, Japan's key security ally, despite public fears about sending troops to what many view as a de facto war zone - a step critics say violates Tokyo's postwar, pacifist constitution.
Ishiba is one of a growing new breed of politicians that wants
Japan's military to have a broader international role.
"Public opinion is split and naturally some are for and some
are opposed to the dispatch," he said. "Their families are
worried and there are many who do not want to go.
"But it is our responsibility as politicians to gain the understanding of the world and the Japanese people for the sake of those members of the Self-Defence Forces (military) who have decided to go despite the risks... and for those lonely families who will grit their teeth and await the return of their fathers and sons."
Tight US ties
Japan enacted a law in July allowing the dispatch of troops to help rebuild Iraq, but the law restricts their activities to non-combat zones, a concept critics say is meaningless given the repeated attacks on US forces and their allies.
Koizumi believes the dispatch is
essential to strengthen the
Japan-US security alliance
No member of Japan's military has fired a shot in combat or been killed in an overseas mission since World War Two, although they have taken part in United Nations peacekeeping operations.
The nation was shocked in December when two Japanese diplomats were shot and killed near Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit in northern Iraq, the first Japanese casualties since the US-led invasion began in March.
Ishiba, as Koizumi has done repeatedly, said the troop dispatch was essential to strengthen the Japan-US security alliance, the core of Japan's post-war defence policy.
"There is only one country, the United States of America, that is committed to defending Japan if we are attacked," he said. "There are some people who say that Japan blindly follows the United States, but I believe that strengthening the Japan-US security alliance is in Japan's national interests."
Tokyo is keen to demonstrate its commitment to the US-Japan security relationship to ensure Washington comes to its defence if neighbouring communist North Korea were to launch an attack.
"There are some people who say that Japan blindly follows the United States, but I believe that strengthening the Japan-US security alliance is in Japan's national interests"
Japan Defence Minister
Ishiba said the Iraq deployment could set a precedent for similar operations abroad.
The government has begun reviewing its basic defence posture, as well as drafting a law that would allow the military to engage in such operations without special legislation each time.
"If the deployment (in Iraq) is a success, it is possible such operations can be taken up as key activities of the Self-Defence Forces," Ishiba said.