Japan sends contingent of troops into Iraq

Monday, February 9, 2004

KUWAIT CITY -- A contingent of Japanese troops crossed Sunday into Iraq from Kuwait as part of the country's first deployment to a combat zone since 1945.

The troops, most of them engineers, are part of a deployment slated to total about 800 troops in a humanitarian mission in southern Iraq. Another 200 are to remain in Kuwait.

The troops who crossed the border Sunday traveled in a 25-vehicle convoy from the U.S. Camp Virginia in the Kuwaiti.

The convoy included armored vehicles, trucks, personnel carriers and an ambulance.

The number of the troops in the convoy was not disclosed.

Japan has already dispatched advance teams and three C-130 cargo planes to the region. The troops will purify water and carry out other humanitarian tasks in Iraq.

The deployment to Iraq is Japan's largest and riskiest since World War II. It has faced strong opposition at home amid fears for their safety with the insurgency in Iraq.

In Tokyo on Sunday, Japan's defense chief, Shigeru Ishiba, said the government wouldn't order its forces out of Iraq until they have completed their humanitarian mission, even if Japanese soldiers are killed in attacks.

The mission is the first time Japanese troops have gone to a combat zone since 1945. While Tokyo has sent soldiers on peacekeeping missions in the past, they have only gone to areas where fighting has subsided.

Japan's constitution, adopted in 1947 during the U.S. postwar occupation of the country, renounces the use of military force.

The Japanese troops in Iraq will be armed with pistols, rifles, machine guns and anti-tank guns to use in self defense only.

The decision by the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to deploy the troops despite widespread opposition reflects a shift in the government's attitude since the 1991 Gulf War, when Tokyo shouldered a portion of the financial burden but sent no soldiers.

Koizumi and his allies in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have been eager to contribute Japanese troops to back the United States, its most important ally.

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