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Japan to send fact-finding mission to Iraq
( 2003-11-14 15:02) (Reuters)

Japan said Friday it remained committed to sending troops for the reconstruction of Iraq but would send a fact-finding mission first to ascertain security conditions following a deadly attack on Italian forces.

Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba said a Self-Defense Forces (SDF) team would leave Saturday for southern Iraq, where the bomb attack occurred and where Japanese troops were expected to be based once sent.

The move comes as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is due to arrive in Tokyo later Friday for talks with Ishiba and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

"We would like to hold an exchange of views on the overall Iraq situation, listen to the U.S. view, while explaining our thinking and how we're dealing with the situation," top government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference.

While Japanese officials said that sending non-combat forces to Iraq was not possible under existing conditions following Wednesday's attack that killed 18 Italians, they added that Tokyo had not given up the planned dispatch.

"Our country has pursued a consistent policy and we intend to continue on that path in the future. We must carry our share of the burden on international society," Fukuda said.

Fukuda had said Wednesday that Tokyo was determined to send troops by the year-end to help rebuild Iraq.

Japan had been expected to send about 150 troops before the end of the year, in addition to a pledge to provide $5 billion in grants and loans to rebuild Iraq, making it the biggest donor after the United States.

Tokyo, one of Washington's closest Asian allies, has been in a bind, stuck between its alliance with the United States and domestic public opinion, which opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq and is predominantly against sending troops to the country.

Japan enacted a law in July allowing the dispatch of troops to Iraq to help with reconstruction and humanitarian activities.

However, the law stipulated that the military, whose overseas activities are constrained by Japan's pacifist constitution, would be sent only to non-combat zones.

That led to debate over whether there were any such areas in Iraq, where U.S. soldiers are killed almost on a daily basis.

U.S. officials said Thursday they understood Japan's decision not to send non-combat forces to Iraq for now, playing down any rift between the close allies.

"Japan has said that it wants to think about the timing of doing that. We understand that," U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said.

"We feel fully supported by Japan (and) believe that they're doing what they believe they can do at this point in time," she said. "We ... understand that countries have to make their own determinations."

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