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Japan in historic Iraq deployment

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A convoy of Japanese Self Defense forces heads for the Iraq border.

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IRAQ/KUWAIT BORDER (Reuters) -- Japanese troops have entered Iraq from Kuwait to begin Japan's most controversial and risky deployment since World War II.

An advance party of soldiers that will prepare the ground for the likely deployment of about 1,000 troops crossed the border at around 12:50 p.m. (0950 GMT) Monday in a convoy of about 12 jeeps and military vehicles.

The dispatch marks a historic shift away from Japan's purely defensive postwar security policy and poses a huge political risk for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose government could be rocked if, as many expect, casualties occur.

Japanese public opinion is divided over Koizumi's decision to send troops to Iraq but he defended the dispatch in a speech prepared for the opening of a new session of parliament.

"We would not be meeting our responsibilities as a member of the international community if we were to leave the contribution of personnel to other countries because of the possible danger," Koizumi said.

The troops will be based in the mainly Shi'ite southern city of Samawa, where they will conduct reconstruction and humanitarian operations.

If Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba judges the area safe after team members report back, he will likely order the main body of troops to set off from late January.

A law enacted last July allows the troop dispatch, but in line with Japan's pacifist constitution, limits the military's activity to "non-combat zones," a murky concept in Iraq, which continues to see daily attacks on occupying troops.

Security was tight in Tokyo after media reports said late last year al Qaeda had warned Japan it would attack the heart of the capital as soon as Japanese troops set foot in Iraq.

Controversy in Japan

About 48 percent of respondents to a weekend poll by Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun said they opposed the dispatch, down from 55 percent in the previous poll in December. About 40 percent said they supported it, up from 34 percent.

A similar poll conducted by Kyodo news agency found 51.6 percent against and 42.8 percent in favor.

While the deployment -- which critics say violates the pacifist constitution -- has divided public opinion in Japan, it has generated huge anticipation in Samawa, a mainly Shi'ite town 300 km (175 miles) south of Baghdad.

The promise that the Japanese are coming has raised hopes of jobs for all.

"The Japanese will bring jobs for everybody -- good jobs," said Ali Khadim, a student. Unemployment is seen as the biggest problem in Samawa with estimates that up to half the men in the town are out of work.

Earlier this month, two people were killed in violent protests over a lack of jobs. But the town has been remarkably quiet since the end of the war in April, said the commander of the Dutch military contingent responsible for security in area.

"If you look at the number of incidents, it's one of the quietest areas," said Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Opelaar who heads a force of just over 1,000 Dutch troops.

There have been no casualties among his force since it deployed six months ago, he said.

But there are concerns that the Japanese troops, who are prevented from engaging in combat operations and can only use weapons in self-defence, may become a target for insurgents.

Monday's convoy was guarded front and back by Dutch armored personnel carriers.

No member of Japan's military has fired a shot in combat or been killed in an overseas mission since World War II although Japanese forces have taken part in United Nations operations since a 1992 law made that possible.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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