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Koizumi wins second term

Koizumi is balancing pledges to the U.S. and public concern over the war in Iraq.
Koizumi is balancing pledges to the U.S. and public concern over the war in Iraq.

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TOKYO, Japan (Reuters) -- Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been re-elected at the start of a brief parliamentary session as Japan grappled with the touchy question of when to send non-combat troops to help rebuild Iraq.

Koizumi's second term became a certainty after his ruling coalition won a stable, although reduced, majority in a November 9 election for parliament's Lower House.

Topping his agenda is the question of when to dispatch troops to Iraq, whose worsening security situation has prompted Tokyo to back-pedal on a plan to send an advance team.

Tokyo had been expected to commit about 150 non-combat troops to Iraq before the end of the year and perhaps as many as 1,200 soldiers and civilians eventually, but the plan was put on hold after an attack last week in southern Iraq killed 18 Italians.

Koizumi must balance the needs of Japan's security alliance with the United States and the concerns of domestic voters, many of whom opposed the U.S.-led war on Iraq and are wary of sending their military to a country where U.S. forces face daily attacks.

The expanding overseas role of Japan's military is controversial because the armed forces are still constrained by a post-World War Two pacifist constitution and have not fired a shot in combat since 1945.

The main opposition Democratic Party, its presence in parliament boosted substantially by the election, is against the troop dispatch under current conditions. A law passed in July allows the troops to be deployed, but only to "non-combat areas."

Democratic Party leader Naoto Kan has vowed to tackle the topic in the parliamentary session, expected to last just nine days.

The sensitivity of the issue was highlighted on Tuesday, when Japanese newspapers gave front-page coverage to news that shots had been fired near the Japanese embassy in Baghdad.

Japan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that there had been gunfire on a street near the embassy early on Tuesday and that the perpetrators had fled when an Iraqi guard fired back. There were no injuries.

Top government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda said on Wednesday it was not clear if the embassy had been targetted and an investigation was under way.

The incident follows reports that Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda group had claimed responsibility for two deadly bombings in Turkey and vowed more attacks on the United States and its allies, including Japan.

Under pressure

Koizumi, who took office in April 2001 promising to cut pork-barrel spending, privatise wasteful public corporations and fix ailing banks, could become Japan's longest ruling prime minister in two decades if he completes a fresh three-year term as president of his Liberal Democratic Party begun in September.

The prime minister -- who is expected to reappoint all his cabinet ministers following his own re-election -- is under pressure from many voters, media and the Democrats to make real progress on his reform agenda.

Along with the Iraq troop dispatch, reform of a pension system groaning under an ageing population looms large.

Both issues could put the LDP at odds with its coalition partner, the Buddhist-backed New Komeito, whose clout in the ruling camp has increased as a result of the election.

Few, however, see the two political allies parting ways any time soon, given their need to cooperate in an election for half the seats in parliament's Upper House next July.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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