Japan Sending Military Team to Iraq

After postponing a decision to send troops to Iraq, Japan's defense chief said Friday that a military fact-finding team would leave soon for the country to assess postwar security.

Japanese media had reported that the dispatch could come as early as Saturday in a show of solidarity with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who arrived in Japan on Friday to visit Japanese officials and U.S. troops stationed here.

The 10-member fact-finding team will head to Iraq "at an early date" to assess safety and reconstruction needs in areas where Japanese troops are expected to operate once they do deploy, Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba told reporters.

Ishiba refused to disclose the dates, duration or the itinerary of the trip "due to safety concerns."

Tokyo had hoped to send troops to Iraq by the end of 2003 to help rebuild the country. But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said Thursday that the country still isn't secure enough following the suicide bombing Wednesday in the city of Nasiriyah that killed 32 people, most of them Italians.

It was the single deadliest attack on coalition forces since the war. Fukuda said a fact-finding team of about 10 military officers was preparing to fly to Iraq soon.

Asked if Japan had abandoned plans to send troops by the end of this year, Ishiba said the dispatch was a matter of safety, not timing. He said another consideration was whether Japan's mission could be conducted within the framework of his country's pacifist constitution.

The nationally circulated Yomiuri newspaper and other papers said Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (search) could approve the fact-finding trip as early as Saturday.

Koizumi has backed the U.S.-led coalition since fighting began in Iraq. But so far he has only offered billions of dollars in humanitarian aid.

The government had been nearing a decision to send an advance party to southern Iraq next month to help with rebuilding schools, roads and water systems. Parliament had passed a law in July authorizing a non-combat deployment.