updated 12/12/2005 8:37:31 AM ET 2005-12-12T13:37:31

Japan’s Cabinet on Thursday approved the extension of the country’s troop deployment in Iraq for one year, paving the way for the government to prolong Tokyo’s largest military mission since World War II.

Japan deployed about 600 troops to the southern Iraqi city of Samawah on a humanitarian mission in early 2004 as part of the U.S.-led coalition. The one-year renewal extends the deployment — due to expire next week — to Dec. 14, 2006.

The extension, however, does not require the troops to remain in Iraq for the full year, and local media have reported that Tokyo intends to pull out around the middle of next year as opposition to the mission rises in Japan.

Eager to raise Japan’s international profile, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s government has been a strong supporter of the U.S.-led invasion and has argued strenuously to keep the troops there to help reconstruct the country.

“We decided that we need to support the effort of the Iraqi people to establish a stable and democratic government,” Koizumi told reporters after the extension was approved. “So we decided to extend our mission there.”

Koizumi also said that he was undecided on the timing of Japan’s eventual withdrawal of troops, but he urged Iraq to bolster security in the country so that civilian aid groups could take over the task of helping to rebuild the country.

Unpopular mission
The mission has never been popular in Japan and faces criticism that it violates the country’s pacifist constitution. Many fear the deployment has made the troops and Japan itself a target for terrorists, or that the troops will get drawn into the fighting.

That opposition has grown as security deteriorates in Iraq. The Japanese camp in Samawah has suffered sporadic attacks, but no Japanese soldier has been hurt. Rock-throwing demonstrators near Samawah over the weekend demanded a Japanese withdrawal.

Speculation has been running high in Japan that Tokyo will pull its non-combat troops out as the British and Australian soldiers protecting them also withdraw, but that has not been confirmed by Japanese officials.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari visited Japan this week and urged Koizumi to extend the non-combat mission. Koizumi told reporters Wednesday that he would take his talks with al-Jaafari into account in making his decision.

Japan troops focus on humanitarian duties
Questions about the effectiveness of the deployment have also come up. With the government eager to avoid any incident, Japanese troops have been largely confined to the safety of their base, limiting their humanitarian duties.

Japan’s troops are tasked with rebuilding schools, purifying water and conducting other reconstruction work.

The deployment has been a cornerstone of Koizumi’s efforts to bolster Japan’s international diplomatic role and loosen controls on the military so that it can join more peacekeeping missions and cooperate more actively with the United States.

Japan provided maritime logistical support for the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. That mission was extended by parliament in October. Japanese cargo planes are also flying support missions in the Middle East.

In tandem with the deployments, the government has been campaigning stridently to win a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, has ramped up military cooperation with the United States, and is pushing to make the Defense Agency into a full-fledged ministry.

Japanese military action is strictly limited under the country’s U.S.-drafted 1947 constitution that bans Japan from offensive military action. Koizumi’s government is working on a revision of the charter to loosen those controls.

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