Sat, Dec 27, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Japan sends first batch of troops on Iraq mission

AP , NARITA, JAPAN

Japan dispatched its first military unit for a humanitarian mission to Iraq yesterday, spearheading the country's biggest overseas deployment since World War II.

The advance air force contingent of 23 personnel left yesterday morning, split between two commercial flights to Kuwait and Qatar from Tokyo international airport. The remainder of the 40-plus member advance team was to leave in coming days, but officials would not give details.

"The time has come for us to go," Colonel Tadashi Miyagawa told dozens of reporters at the airport before going through security. "Each individual has his own thoughts, but we'll be unified."

The air force units will assess security and make arrangements for a larger 276-member air force contingent charged with shipping medical and food supplies from Kuwait to Iraq. In addition, more than 500 Japanese ground troops will be deployed in southern Iraq in February and March.

The contingent sent yesterday was part of a total dispatch of about 1,000 personnel, including land, air and sea forces, on a mission to help restore water services, offer medical aid and rebuild schools and other infrastructure.

The deployment has raised opposition in Japan, where many are wary of possible casualties in Iraq and terror attacks at home. But Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government has stressed Japan's responsibility to help US-led coalition forces restore stability to Iraq.

Reflecting the government's assurances that the soldiers would not engage in combat, the air force personnel leaving yesterday were dressed in blazers, sweat shirts or jeans, rather than military uniforms. Some of the families were assembled at the airport to see off the troops.

The government has also been keen to avoid the kind of criticism from Washington that Japan received during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, when Tokyo sent money, but no personnel.

"We want the military to make big contributions to Iraqi reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. We expect them to fulfill their duties and make major contributions," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference yesterday.

The Defense Agency plans to deploy armored vehicles and up to six naval ships, including destroyers, to support its units. Eight aircraft, including three C130 transport planes, will also be dispatched.

Japan also has offered the second-largest pledge for Iraqi reconstruction after the US, promising US$1.5 billion in grants for next year and US$3.5 billion in loans for 2005-2007.

The deployment will be a milestone for Japan's military, which is strictly limited by the country's pacifist constitution.

A special law allowing the dispatch for humanitarian missions in Iraq was passed by parliament in July, but only under the condition that the troops be sent to stable areas away from combat.

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