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The House of Representatives passed a bill Friday that paves the way for elements of the Self-Defense Forces to go on a mission in Iraq.

Since Diet deliberations on the bill began June 24, however, some remain in the dark over what the SDF units will do and where they might operate.

What’s more, the ruling coalition and opposition parties presented conflicting reports about Iraq’s security situation and what kind of assistance is needed. The reports were handed in by fact-finding missions upon their return from the country.

Q. What exactly does the bill spell out?

A. The bill says SDF personnel will engage in humanitarian assistance and rebuild destroyed infrastructure. SDF troops would also provide logistic support for U.S.-led forces to maintain security in Iraq, including transportation and supply of food, water and fuel. It says the SDF will operate only in “noncombat” areas of the country.

The legislation will be effective for four years, and the dispatch of the SDF must be approved by the Diet within 20 days of the dispatch order.

Q. Why is a new law necessary? Doesn’t the peacekeeping operation law allow the dispatch of SDF troops for postconflict reconstruction?

A. Yes, there is the 1992 peacekeeping operation law and SDF troops have been active in helping with reconstruction in such places as Cambodia and East Timor. But in order to apply the law to Iraq, a peacekeeping operation under the auspices of the United Nations must be in place, and there needs to be a ceasefire between warring parties and host-country consent for SDF operations. Iraq meets none of these conditions.

Another law was passed in 2001 allowing the dispatch of SDF elements to support antiterrorism activities in and near Afghanistan. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has said Japan should consider making a permanent law stipulating conditions for an overseas SDF dispatch instead of making special laws each time a new conflict occurs.

Q. Why are the opposition parties against the bill? Shouldn’t Japan, the world’s second-largest economy, help rebuild Iraq?

A. Opposition parties agree that Japan should help with reconstruction but they are against sending SDF troops. The Democratic Party of Japan says it opposes the dispatch because the Iraq war cannot be justified by any past U.N. resolution. Furthermore, it points out that it is impossible to draw a line between combat zones and noncombat zones, as continued sporadic attacks on U.S. and British soldiers demonstrate. The largest opposition party argues that there may be cases where SDF personnel would be pressed to use force, in violation of the war-renouncing Constitution.

Q. So how does the government propose to determine where the noncombat zones are?

A. It says there is no need to draw a clear line. It only says the areas where the SDF operate will be places where fighting is not taking place or not expected to take place.

Q. That sounds a little vague.

A. Yes it does. Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba has even said that a noncombat zone is an “abstract” idea and that there may be unsafe places in noncombat zones. The government does not consider banditry or sporadic shootings as “combat.” So there may be cases in which SDF personnel are attacked even if they are sent to what the government determines to be noncombat areas. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda only said the government will determine which areas of Iraq are safe based on “common sense.”

Q. What does the government have in mind about the SDF’s specific job in Iraq?

A. The only concrete measures the government has referred to are water purifying activities and airlifts of relief supplies. The ruling bloc’s fact-finding mission said the SDF’s water purifying capability will be useful to provide clean water for U.S. and British forces stationed at Baghdad international airport. Opposition parties claimed such activities can be done by nongovernmental organizations.

Q. How else do the reports differ?

A. The ruling coalition’s report says the security situation in Iraq is improving dramatically, while three opposition parties that sent missions to Iraq say security is worsening as the Iraqi people’s resentment toward the U.S.-British occupation mounts.

Q. Was there any attempt to revise the bill between the ruling coalition and DPJ?

A. Yes. The DPJ offered a counterproposal by limiting Japan’s role to civilian activities. The ruling coalition said the stipulation was unacceptable but offered a compromise to shorten the term of the law to two years, drop a reference to three U.N. resolutions, which it says authorized the U.S.-led war on Iraq, and make the SDF dispatch subject for prior Diet approval.

With the DPJ sticking to its position, the revision talks failed. Prior to submitting the bill to the Diet, however, the government amended its original draft, because the Liberal Democratic Party demanded that disposal of weapons of mass destruction be dropped from the SDF duties since these arms have not been found. The government had claimed that Iraq’s possession of WMD was the very cause for the war.

Q. Why does the government want so much to send SDF units?

A. The government says the SDF personnel are experienced in working in postconflict situations. It is true that they are suited to work under rough conditions and can protect themselves and be self-sufficient with their food, water, power and other daily necessities.

But the real drive for sending the SDF seems to be Koizumi’s quest to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance. The government has bitter memories over the criticism it received for just providing money and not making a personnel contribution during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. U.S. officials have indirectly urged Japan to send SDF personnel to Iraq, saying they want to see Japanese “boots on the ground.”