Japan's Cabinet approved a plan yesterday to dispatch troops to Iraq, a landmark decision setting the stage for what is likely to be the nation's biggest and most dangerous overseas military mission since World War II.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi convened a special meeting of his Cabinet to approve the controversial plan, which critics have said is ill-conceived and violates Japan's pacifist constitution.
Earlier, Koizumi met Takenori Kanzaki, the head of his coalition partner New Komeito Party, and got his backing for the plan. But he also agreed to carefully consider the security situation in Iraq before actually sending in troops.
"The utmost caution must be exercised if Ground Self-Defense Forces are to be sent," Kanzaki told reporters after meeting Koizumi.
Koizumi will hold a news conference to explain his decision, which comes as surveys show that most of the public oppose sending troops now and follows the killing of two Japanese diplomats in Iraq late last month.
The prime minister has had to balance Japan's tight security ties with the US, which is keen for the dispatch, with domestic concerns that increased after the diplomats' deaths.
Just minutes before the Cabinet approval, the US army said 31 US soldiers were wounded in northern Iraq when a car believed to be driven by a suicide bomber exploded at the entrance to their base.
No member of Japan's military has fired a shot in combat or been killed in an overseas mission since World War II, although they have taken part in UN peacekeeping operations since a 1992 law made that possible.
The plan approved yesterday will allow troops to be sent during a one-year period starting Dec. 15, but will not set a specific date for the dispatch or the size of the mission, media said. The bulk of the forces are expected to go next year.
Tokyo intends to eventually send 500 to 700 soldiers to southern Iraq, where it believes the security situation is stable, but equip them with the heaviest artillery they have ever taken overseas, according to media reports.
The army will have portable anti-tank rocket launchers and recoilless guns to protect against possible suicide bomb attacks, the reports said.
Seven or eight planes from the air force as well as three transport vessels and three destroyers from the navy are also expected to be sent to Iraq.
Japan's constitution renounces the right to go to war and prohibits the country from having a military.