Japan's lower house of parliament has given the go-ahead for troops to be sent to help with the reconstruction of post-war Iraq.
Japanese troops could have a transport role
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi could send about 1,000 non-combatant troops to Iraq by October if the bill becomes law, as expected, later this month.
It would be the largest foreign deployment for Japan's armed forces since World War II, which has angered some critics.
They say the plan could allow Japanese troops to get drawn into the combat that has plagued US-led troops since the end of major hostilities at the start of May.
This would violate the country's pacifist constitution, which forbids the use of force to settle international conflicts except in self-defence.
The ruling coalition rejected a revised bill submitted by the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan providing for Japan to help in Iraq without dispatching the military.
Mr Koizumi and his cabinet ministers have insisted the troops will only be sent to areas "free of military conflict" and would be involved in a non-combat role, mainly transporting supplies and ammunition.
But critics argue that such areas are ill-defined, given the level of attacks in Iraq.
During a visit to Japan last month, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage welcomed the prospect of any assistance or "boots on the ground" from Japan.
"It would leave me with a great feeling of confidence that Japan is willing to take her place with the major nations of the world and play a positive role for security," he said.
Prime Minister Koizumi has already approved aid flights to the Gulf
The bill will go before the less-powerful upper house on Monday for further discussions but it is virtually assured of being passed into law by the end of the current parliamentary session on 28 July.
Earlier on Friday, Mr Koizumi's Cabinet approved the dispatch of three C-130 planes and one U-4 transport plane to ferry food, medicine and other supplies to countries bordering Iraq, where the supplies will be transferred to trucks for the
final leg into the country.
A Cabinet Office statement said the planes, carrying about 150 military personnel, would leave for Jordan on Monday on a three-month mission.
Japan's Air Self-Defence Forces spokesman Chiyohiro Akamine said that while the planes will be authorized to transport supplies provided by UN agencies from Italy to countries bordering Iraq, they do not have UN approval to land in Iraq.