Japan's powerful Lower House of parliament yesterday gave the go-ahead for the nation's biggest foreign troop deployment since World War II, passing a law that allows the government to send soldiers to help rebuild Iraq.
The law, the latest in a series of steps boosting the military that critics say is undermining Japan's pacifist Constitution, paves the way for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to send about 1,000 troops to Iraq in the near future.
The bill is expected to become law later this month upon endorsement by parliament's Upper House.
Critics, including some ruling party heavyweights, have raised their voice against the plan, saying it would violate the 1947 Constitution which forbids the use of force to settle international conflicts except in self-defense.
Koizumi and his Cabinet ministers have insisted the troops will only be sent to areas "free of military conflict."
But critics have argued that it is almost impossible to designate such areas given a string of attacks on US and British soldiers since US President George W. Bush declared major combat over in Iraq in May.
Since May 1, at least 25 US troops and six British troops have been killed in hostile circumstances in Iraq, in a conflict experts say is fast becoming a low-level guerrilla war.
Japan's mission to Iraq would mainly provide logistical support to US and other allied forces, paving the way for the world's second-largest economy to play a greater role in global security. Asian neighbors such as China and South Korea -- victims of Japan's wartime aggression -- have traditionally been extremely wary of such moves.
At a meeting at his Texas ranch in May, Bush asked Koizumi for visible cooperation in the reconstruction of Iraq, and the Japanese prime minister said Tokyo would take an active role.
During a visit to Japan last month, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage hailed the proposed law.
"Japan, if successful in the Diet deliberations, coming forward with any assistance and/or `boots on the ground,' would be a most welcome development," he told Japanese media.
"It would leave me with a great feeling of confidence that Japan is willing to take her place with the major nations of the world and play a positive role for security," he said.
Despite fearful and suspicious eyes from its Asian neighbors, Japan has been taking steps to boost its security role overseas since the early 1990s.
It took three years of haggling before the government brought a peacekeeping operations bill into effect in 1992, permitting Japanese troops to take part in UN peacekeeping.
Since then, Japan has dispatched troops to war-torn Cambodia, Mozambique, Zaire and the Golan Heights.
Japan passed another law in late 2001 that enabled it to provide back-up in the form of refuelling and supplies for US forces in Afghanistan, anxious to avoid the embarrassment it suffered in 1991 when it shied away from sending troops to the Gulf War.
Also see stories: