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A government-proposed bill to allow the Self-Defense Forces to be dispatched to Iraq to assist in reconstruction efforts cleared a special committee of the House of Representatives on Thursday.

The committee action paves the way for the bill’s enactment by the July 28 end of the current Diet session.

The bill, which passed with the backing of the ruling coalition — the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — will be put to a vote at a Friday plenary session of the Lower House. If it clears the lower chamber, it would then be sent to the House of Councilors.

Under the legislation, which would be in effect for four years, the SDF would be sent to noncombat zones in Iraq and would mainly handle humanitarian assistance efforts and help maintain order.

At the same session, the committee voted down an alternate version of the bill submitted by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan that limited Japan’s contribution in Iraq to civilian activities.

During the final debate before the committee voted, the DPJ argued that the party opposes the dispatch of the SDF because the invasion of Iraq was not authorized by any U.N. resolution. It added that it is impossible to distinguish between combat and noncombat zones as sporadic shootings by Iraqis against U.S. soldiers continue.

Sending SDF personnel to unsafe places may put them in situations where they would have to use force, which violates the war-renouncing Constitution, the party argued.

But Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reiterated the government’s position: “The SDF is highly capable of working in a self-sufficient manner, they would only go to noncombat zones, and would not use force.”

Koizumi added that the government supported the U.S.-led war on Iraq because it was justified by U.N. resolutions.

The ruling coalition had hoped to put two bills to a vote Thursday — the Iraq bill and a bill to extend the ongoing SDF activities in the antiterrorism drive in Afghanistan by two years. The current term of SDF involvement in the antiterror operations expires Nov. 1.

But the committee only voted on the Iraq bill as opposition parties demanded that the vote be separate. because little debate has taken place on the other bill.

While Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said Thursday that the government still wants both laws enacted by the end of the current Diet session, most political insiders agree that the ruling bloc has effectively pushed back the vote on the antiterror bill to an extraordinary session that will likely be held this fall.

“Considering the tight Diet schedule, it now seems difficult to pass the antiterrorism bill during the current session,” DPJ policy chief Yoshihiko Noda said.

The ruling camp’s desire to vote on the two bills together stemmed from the political interests of Koizumi and LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki. The prime minister and Yamasaki want to maintain a free hand over the timing of the dissolution of the Lower House.

A general election must be held by June next year, when Lower House members’ four-terms expire. Koizumi’s power to dissolve the chamber for snap elections can be used as political leverage against opposition parties and his opponents within the LDP.

The Koizumi-Yamasaki pair were worried that opportunities to call a snap election in the fall would be limited if the Diet discusses the antiterror bill during an extraordinary session. Coalition partner New Komeito, for its part, does not want the Lower House election be held simultaneously with the scheduled Upper House election in summer.

Apparently in consideration of such concerns, the ruling parties agreed Wednesday that the handling of future Diet proceedings “would not hamper (the prime minister’s) power to dissolve the Lower House.”

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