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TOKYO (AP) -- Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Thursday approved a plan to dispatch 1,000 troops to Iraq, the country's first military deployment to a combat zone since World War II.
Koizumi ordered his defense minister to begin preparing the troops, pressing ahead with the deployment despite some opposition at home. Asian governments preparing to help out in Iraq have shown increased optimism over reconstruction there since the capture of ousted leader Saddam Hussein over the weekend.
With Japan's pacifist constitution strictly limiting its military to a self-defensive role, the Iraq deployment is billed as a humanitarian mission -- aimed at rebuilding schools and infrastructure, providing medical services, restoring water services. The troops will not be involved in patrolling or peacekeeping but will be armed and responsible for their own security.
During a closed-door meeting, Koizumi approved Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba's proposed dispatch schedule and told him to start readying troops for non-combat duty, an agency spokesman said, quoting Ishiba. The schedule was not announced, but Japanese media have reported the bulk of the contingent will deploy in February.
Ishiba will order for troops to start assembling and loading supplies and equipment Friday, the spokesman said.
Since unveiling a plan last week to send 1,000 non-combat military personnel to southeastern Iraq, Koizumi has dodged criticism -- and quieted resistance from within his own two-party ruling bloc -- by refraining from announcing its timing.
A government order for the military to begin preparations would put troops one step closer to a deployment that is expected to start early next year, although Defense Agency officials declined to offer details of the schedule.
National media reported this week that an advance contingent of air force personnel plans to leave for Kuwait next week.
The agency's plan proposes sending the main contingent of about 500 Japanese soldiers to the southern city of Samawah in three waves, reportedly starting in late February.
They will be preceded by an advance party of about 100 military engineers who will arrive in January to set up a base, enlisting the protection of Dutch forces in the region until its completion, according to the reports carried by major Japanese media.
Japanese troops have participated in peacekeeping missions in areas where fighting has subsided, but they haven't been in combat since World War II.
The plan has drawn criticism. Many fear that troops might come under fire in Iraq or that terrorists could attack in Japan. Two Japanese diplomats were killed in Iraq last month, raising concerns about safety there.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)