Japan ground troops set to leave
The ground troops will act as scouts for a force that could include up to 1,000 personnel.
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TOKYO, Japan -- Tokyo is set to send off its first army team to Iraq in the largest and most dangerous overseas military assignment since World War II.
The move follows intense debate on the matter, stirred up by the killing of two Japanese diplomats in Iraq late last year.
The team was due to leave on Friday as police tightened security at government offices, nuclear power plants, airports and railway stations.
Media reports said late last year that terror group al Qaeda had warned Japan it would attack the heart of Tokyo as soon as Japanese troops arrived in Iraq.
After a send-off ceremony in Tokyo, about 30 members of the ground force were expected to leave for southeastern Iraq, where they will act as scouts for a force that could include up to 1,000 troops.
Details of the team's departure on a civilian aircraft have been kept under wraps for security reasons.
If Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba judges the area safe after team members report back, he will likely order the main body of around 600 ground troops to set off beginning in late January, according to a Reuters report.
A group of air force personnel left last month in preparation for shuttling supplies from Kuwait to Iraq.
The troop plan is a controversial one for Japan with many critics saying such a dispatch violates the nation's pacifist constitution.
Article nine of the constitution forbids Japan's military -- the Self-Defense Forces -- from waging war overseas.
But a law enacted last July allows the troop dispatch, limiting the military's activity to "non-combat zones."
Opponents of the troop dispatch are concerned that owing to the security situation in Iraq, Japanese forces may be drawn into combat.
Many Japanese are not happy about sending troops to Iraq.
No Japanese soldier has fired a shot in combat or been killed in an overseas mission since World War II despite roles in international peacekeeping missions, such as in East Timor, which were made possible by a 1992 law.
Opinion polls showed most Japanese were against the Iraq war and most are now opposed to the deployment of troops.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said on Friday it was in the nation's interests to help build a stable Iraq.
"Opinion is divided now," Koizumi said. "But with time, I believe the people will understand."
The plan allows for the troops to be sent during a one-year period starting December 15 but no specific date for the dispatch or the size of the deployment was provided.