TOKYO—Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi brushed aside widespread public skepticism Tuesday as his Cabinet approved the dispatch of 1,000 troops to Iraq, in what promises to be the largest deployment of Japanese troops overseas since World War II.
Japan's Self-Defense Force will head to southern Iraq, possibly next month, for humanitarian and reconstruction work. The deployment is premised on the condition that Japanese troops won't enter combat situations, a condition many Japanese doubt can be met.
Koizumi's decision to help Japan's closest ally, the United States, in Iraq carries huge political risks. Although Koizumi is popular, he would face a public backlash in the event of serious Japanese casualties.
A survey by NHK, the public broadcast network, showed that only 17 percent of interviewees favored sending troops to Iraq soon. Fifty-three percent supported the dispatch of troops after stability is achieved, and 28 percent opposed sending troops under any conditions.
Koizumi implicitly recognized the view abroad that, beyond financial aid, Japan contributes insufficiently to the maintenance of the international order.
Comparing Japan's aid to Iraq to the help Japan received from other countries after World War II, Koizumi said, "The peace and stability of the whole international community is indispensable for Japan's security and prosperity, as we depend so much on other countries; we thus have to actively contribute to that end."
He added: "In addition to financial contribution, we believe it is important to demonstrate to the Iraqi people Japanese assistance provided by the Japanese people."
Although Japan has sent peacekeeping troops since 1992 to Cambodia, Mozambique, East Timor and other places, no member of the Self-Defense Force has suffered a combat casualty or been killed overseas since World War II.
No more than 600 Ground Self-Defense Force troops will be dispatched for medical services, water supply, rehabilitation and other public utilities work. Other troops would come from the air and maritime services.
Troops will be armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other weaponry, along with strict rules of engagement specifying when the weapons can be used.
The Air Self-Defense Force will dispatch eight aircraft, including a C-130 jumbo jet for transporting humanitarian materials. Up to six naval vessels may be deployed, including two destroyers.
U.S. Ambassador Howard H. Baker Jr. praised the deployment as having enormous symbolic and practical value.
"I don't think it matters so much whether it is 300 people or 1,000 people or 30,000 people. I think the expression of national will ... will be well understood by terrorists and will be well appreciated by the rest of the world," he said, before the deployment was formally announced.
Taro Kono, a young legislator from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, expressed concern that the deployment would violate the terms of the parliamentary authorization for sending the troops, which passed last summer, because even southern Iraq is in effect a war zone.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.