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Japan troops begin Iraq mission

No specific date for the main dispatch has been released.
No specific date for the main dispatch has been released.

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Japanese troops cross the Kuwaiti border into Iraq on Monday, marking a shift in Japan's foreign policy.
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TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- Japanese troops have arrived in southern Iraq to begin Japan's most controversial and riskiest military venture since World War II.

The advance party of 35 members of Japan's army -- known as the Ground Self Defense Forces -- are the first ground troops to be deployed to Iraq are making preparations for a dispatch of up to 1,000 troops, including air and naval support in the next month.

They arrived at the Dutch military camp in Samawa Monday evening after crossing the border from Kuwait eight hours earlier.

"Our mission is to collect information about security and coordinate with aid organizations before our main body comes to Iraq," head of the advance party Col. Masahisa Sato said. "I am proud to be here."

Japanese Prime Minster Junichiro Koizumi's decision to send forces to Iraq is an historic change in foreign policy and has drawn fire and much debate with critics saying the deployment is against the country's pacifist constitution that forbids troops from engaging in combat.

Though the deployment will be based in less volatile areas in Iraq and is restricted to working on humanitarian infrastructure projects, critics say the present security situation in Iraq means Japanese troops still run the risk of being drawn into combat situations.

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.

The deployment has also triggered new terrorist threats -- underscoring public fears -- after media reports late last year said terrorist group al Qaeda had warned Japan it would attack the heart of Tokyo as soon as Japanese troops arrived in Iraq.

Details of the troop departure were kept under wraps and Tokyo's international airport beefed up security for the flight.

Recent polls show the public is evenly divided for and against deployment. Surprisingly, while many Japanese remain wary, support for Koizumi has climbed 2 percent to 43 percent as troops departed, media polls found.

The prime minister has said that it was in the nation's interests to help build a stable Iraq and on Monday defended his policy at the opening session of parliament.

"We cannot say we are contributing to the international community by giving only material assistance and not providing human assistance because it may be dangerous - leaving it to other countries," Koizumi said.

"Financial assistance and assistance by the Self Defense Forces and other people are both necessary."

The plan for the dispatch -- approved late last year -- 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 is yet to be provided.

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