Japan's Cabinet yesterday approved a plan to keep Japanese troops in Iraq for another year.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a vocal supporter of the US-led invasion of Iraq, had argued the dispatch was needed to help stabilize the country and fight terrorism. The troops are strictly non-combat.
The Cabinet agreed to the plan to extend the humanitarian mission hours after the ruling coalition signed off on it, Trade Minister Shoichi Nakagawa said as he left the meeting.
The decision had been widely expected, despite opinion polls showing many Japanese favor bringing the soldiers home.
The current mission was scheduled to expire on Tuesday.
Tokyo has some 550 soldiers in southern Iraq to purify water and rebuild infrastructure, supported by several hundred air and naval forces in neighboring countries.
Koizumi sent the soldiers to Iraq in January, launching Japan's largest and most dangerous military mission since World War II. He has said the international community had a responsibility to rebuild Iraq and could not allow the country to become a haven for terrorists.
Koizumi was expected to make an announcement later in the day.
"The prime minister intends to fully explain to the people after the Cabinet approves the plan," Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told a news conference.
Many Japanese are opposed to the dispatch because they believe their soldiers could be drawn into fighting, putting them at risk of violating Japan's pacifist Constitution. Opinion polls show some 50 percent of Japanese want the troops to withdraw when the current mandate expires. Opposition leaders also say all of Iraq is at war, thus failing to meet the conditions set out by the law that troops only be sent to non-combat zones.
To assuage safety concerns, Defense Minister Yoshinori Ono briefly visited southern Iraq over the weekend and concluded that the area Japanese soldiers were assigned to was secure enough. Senior lawmakers also surveyed the region this week.
The new mandate will last until Dec. 14 next year. It specifically mentions that the troops may be pulled out if security deteriorates, Japanese media reported.