updated 1/9/2004 8:03:13 AM ET 2004-01-09T13:03:13

Japan’s defense chief on Friday ordered an advance team of ground troops to leave for Iraq as the military began final preparations for a humanitarian operation that will be its biggest and most controversial overseas deployment since World War II.

The 30-member reconnaissance team from the Ground Self-Defense Force represents the first of about 600 soldiers that Japan is planning to send to southern Iraq on a noncombat mission to help with reconstruction.

The team reportedly was set to leave next Thursday for the southern city of Samawah via Kuwait, but officials refused to confirm specifics of their itinerary.

“They will gather information on security conditions and carry out other necessary preparations for the deployment,” Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ichiba said. “We will continue to take every conceivable measure to ensure the safety of our personnel.”

Waiting for report
The government will make a long-anticipated — and politically risky — decision when to commit the main contingent of ground forces after receiving the team’s report. Media reports say those troops will probably start deploying next month if conditions remain stable in southern Iraq.

Ichiba also gave the order Friday for a detachment of C-130 military transport aircraft from Japan’s air force to mobilize for departure at an unannounced date.

An advance team of air force personnel traveled to Kuwait and Qatar two weeks ago to coordinate the operations of the aircraft, which will supply Japanese forces in Iraq.

The mission is unprecedented for Japan’s modern military, which operates under the constraints of a pacifist constitution and has never been deployed in a potential combat zone.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s administration has pushed forward with preparations despite polls indicating a majority of Japanese oppose the operation.

Balancing job
Near-daily attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces and humanitarian operations have left many leery that Japanese troops could get caught up in the fighting. Koizumi’s political foes says the mission violates the war-renouncing provisions of Japan’s post-1945 constitution.

Koizumi argues Japan has a responsibility to help stabilize Iraq and support its most important ally, the United States.

In Iraq, the troops will rebuild schools, restore water services and provide medical care. They will carry arms only for self-protection.

Japan has contributed small military units for noncombat duty with U.N.-led peacekeeping operations for a decade, but only in countries where fighting had subsided.

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