TOKYO: Japan's ruling coalition forced a bill through parliament on Friday to revive a US-backed anti-terror mission in the Indian Ocean, clearing the way for Japanese ships to return to the region after a months-long absence.
Japan had refueled ships since 2001 in support of US-led forces in Afghanistan, but was forced to abandon the mission in November when the resurgent opposition blocked an extension.
To get the mission approved, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's ruling coalition used a rare legislative procedure of winning a vote in the powerful lower house by a two-thirds majority to overrule the opposition-controlled upper house.
The measure enacted on Friday will limit Japanese ships to refueling boats not directly involved in hostilities in Afghanistan, a restriction aimed at winning over a public wary of violating the spirit of the pacifist constitution.
Following the vote, Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba promptly ordered ships to prepare for dispatch. The fleet should leave port in two to three weeks and resume operations in five to six weeks, the ministry said.
Fukuda and other ruling party lawmakers argued the mission was needed to fulfill Japan's obligations in the global war against terrorism and give the country a world role commensurate with its economic clout.
"It has been of great detriment to Japan that this mission, which addresses international needs and is in our national interest, has been suspended," ruling party lawmaker Akio Sato told parliament ahead of the vote.
"Japan must join the world in the fight against terrorism," Sato said.
"We must make a quick return."
The United States had lobbied hard for the mission, and US Ambassador Thomas Schieffer made a rare public foray into domestic politics on the issue by meeting with lawmakers to urge their support.
The lower house vote, which approved the measure 340 versus 133, followed the upper house's rejection of the bill earlier in the day.
Under a Japanese law last used in 1951, the upper house can only be overruled by a two-thirds vote in the lower chamber.
The opposition accused the ruling camp of forcing its will on the people.
"This is a clear abuse of power," said Yoshito Sengoku, a lawmaker of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan.
"The government will now surely lose the trust of the people."
The approval comes as a bitter victory for Fukuda, who has been a staunch supporter of a continued presence for Japan in the Indian Ocean region.
Fukuda's government was deeply embarrassed by having to withdraw the mission in November, a step that cast doubt on how far Tokyo can back Washington in its global war on terrorist groups.