• The Associated Press

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The House of Representatives approved a two-year extension of the Air Self-Defense Forces’ transport mission in Iraq on Tuesday, overcoming criticism of Japan’s involvement in the increasingly unpopular war.

The measure was easily passed in the Lower House, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling bloc holds a majority. The government has argued that the mission is needed to help stabilize Iraq and prevent the spread of terrorism.

Japan backed the U.S.-led Iraq invasion and provided troops for a 2004-2006 noncombat, humanitarian mission in southern Iraq. Last year it expanded its Kuwait-based operations to airlift U.N. and coalition personnel and supplies into Baghdad.

The legislation still needs to be approved by the Upper House, where the ruling bloc also holds a majority.

Approval would give a boost to Abe as he tries to raise Japan’s military profile internationally.

On Monday, the Diet passed guidelines for amending the pacifist Constitution. Abe says he wants to change the charter to allow the Self-Defense Forces greater freedom to join peacekeeping missions and possibly come to the aid of an ally under attack.

The Iraq mission is part of that attempted shift to a more assertive foreign policy. Still, critics say any overseas military operation violates the spirit of the Constitution, which prohibits using force to settle international disputes.

Daizo Kusuda, an opposition Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker, accused the government of compounding its mistake of supporting the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“Weapons of mass destruction . . . were never found and the links between (Saddam Hussein) and terrorism organizations are still unclear today,” he said.

The public has also increasingly criticized U.S. policy in Iraq, while critics warn Tokyo’s support of Washington has made Japan a terrorist target.

A poll by NHK released Monday found only 17 percent of respondents supported an extension of Japan’s mission to Iraq, while 40 percent were opposed. About 38 percent were unsure.

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