Japan's Parliament passes bill to send troops to Iraq

Saturday, July 26, 2003

TOKYO -- Lawmakers voted Friday to send Japanese forces to Iraq to help with reconstruction, despite delaying tactics by the opposition that deteriorated into a wild shoving match.

The passage of the bill was a victory for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who campaigned hard to send peacekeeping troops overseas as he seeks to raise Japan's profile on the world stage.

He also aims to distance his administration from the "checkbook diplomacy" for which Japan, the world's second-richest nation, was criticized during the 1991 Gulf War. At a May summit with President Bush, Koizumi promised Japan would play a key part in rebuilding Iraq.

Military planners reportedly are considering up to 1,000 combat engineers and other troops for transport and construction duties in Iraq.

Koizumi said details about the deployment -- including its size and timing -- will be worked out after officials assess the situation in Iraq.

"We'll give thorough consideration to the safety of our troops, as we carry out assistance to help rebuild Iraq," Koizumi said after the legislation passed.

Washington immediately welcomed the decision, saying the assistance would help stabilize Iraq.

"We recognize what an important issue this is and how it's an important development for Japan," U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "And we think Japan's ability to play this positive role in Iraq is a reflection of the kind of role it can play in world affairs."

Opposition parties criticized the legislation, saying such peacekeeping missions could violate Japan's pacifist constitution and put troops in the line of enemy fire.

The bill had already passed an upper-house committee with support from Koizumi's three-party coalition, which controls a majority in both chambers of Parliament. The full 247-seat upper house convened after midnight, voting 136 in favor and 102 against the bill.

During the committee meeting, outraged opposition legislators shouted and tried to push their way through a ring of ruling party lawmakers to get at the committee chairman, who had cut short the debate. The chairman called a vote amid the grappling and tackling.

The opposition had tried to stall passage of the legislation for days, submitting one censure motion after another against Koizumi, his Cabinet ministers and other ruling party officials in Parliament with long filibuster-style speeches and slow-motion voting.

Koizumi's ruling party vowed Friday to convene Parliament over the weekend if necessary to ensure the legislation passed before the parliament session ends Monday.

The peacekeeping bill allows Japanese ground troops to provide non-combat support for U.S.-led forces in Iraq. It also gives the government power to send forces to trouble spots around the world to offer medical assistance, repatriate refugees, reconstruct buildings and roads and give administrative advice -- even on missions without U.N. support.

Small Japanese military contingents have participated in several U.N. peacekeeping operations since 1992, most recently in East Timor.

The United States and close ally Britain are having mixed success in recruiting help in Iraq. France, Germany and India have declined to take part. There are currently about 147,000 U.S. troops and 13,000 troops from other countries in Iraq.

U.S. officials have expressed hope that Pakistan and Turkey will also join.

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