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Japan will send a fact-finding mission to Iraq as early as next week to determine where Self-Defense Forces can operate and what kind of humanitarian assistance Tokyo can offer, government officials said Friday.

The team, which will include officials of the Foreign Ministry and Defense Agency, will gather information in Iraq and neighboring countries.

Yukio Okamoto, foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, is currently in Iraq, conducting an advance inspection.

Asked if the team will be sent next week, Koizumi told reporters: “We will dispatch (the mission) as soon as they are ready.”

Officials have said the SDF’s initial work will focus on humanitarian assistance, such as providing food, water and medical services, rather than providing logistic support for U.S. troops in Iraq. But air transportation of materials for U.S. troops stationed in Iraq from neighboring countries may be considered.

The government had planned to dispatch SDF troops in October, but it has been delaying the timing due to worsening security conditions in Iraq.

But with the United States calling for a visible contribution, and a visit to Japan by U.S. President George W. Bush planned for October, Tokyo has decided to send a mission to pave the way for an SDF dispatch.

The actual dispatch will likely be early next year.

Koizumi earlier this week emphasized that Japan “must not back down” from sending the SDF to help with Iraq’s reconstruction. Other candidates in the upcoming Liberal Democratic Party presidential election have meanwhile expressed caution or outright oppositions toward such a dispatch.