SAMAWAH, Iraq -- Japanese soldiers entered a conflict zone yesterday for the first time since World War II, crossing into Iraq on a humanitarian mission that has stirred controversy at home while raising great expectations among Iraqis.
The 30-member Japanese engineering and water purification unit, escorted by Dutch troops, moved out from a US military base in the Kuwaiti desert at midday and arrived after sundown at the Dutch garrison at Camp Smitty.
The camp is 3 miles outside this Iraqi town and 140 miles south of Baghdad. When fully deployed by March, a 1,000-strong Japanese contingent will help purify water supplies, rebuild schools, and provide medical care in southern Iraq.
They will carry arms for self-protection, but their role will be noncombatant.
The mission has met with widespread opposition in Japan, where memories of the World War II defeat still linger. Recent polls show most Japanese oppose the deployment, but Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made the mission a centerpiece of a speech to parliament yesterday.
"We won't have fulfilled our responsibility as a member of the international community if we contribute materially and leave the manpower contribution up to other countries because of the possible dangers involved," Koizumi said.
Tokyo spent money supporting the 1991 Gulf War, but sent no troops. Afterward, Japan was criticized at home and abroad for relying on "checkbook diplomacy."
"Japan's development and prosperity depends on world peace and stability," Koizumi told lawmakers. "We will aggressively contribute to the rebuilding of Iraq."
Many in Samawah are counting on it.
The sleepy town is gripped with Japanmania -- welcoming banners in Arabic and Japanese grace the market, and merchants have stocked up on goods they hope the Japanese will want, sometimes making cultural miscalculations.
One shop owner was displaying cheese and cracker packs -- "I am told the Japanese like it," said Ahmed Abdul Hamid, 25, unaware that cheese is not popular in Japan.
Many in the town on the banks of the Euphrates River are counting on the troops to put an end to the constant power outages and sanitation problems.
"The people here think the Japanese are like a genie from a bottle," said Yousef Jaber al-Mohsen, the deputy editor of the Samawah Weekly Journal, which is published every 10 days.
The enthusiasm runs from the town's business establishment to the mosques that support a Shi'ite Muslim cleric opposed to the US-led coalition.
"They are going to improve the town 100 percent," said Anmar Khudir, a goldsmith in the town's market. "We will have clean water to drink, electricity, maybe even less crime."
Earlier this month, Khudir organized the Association of Japanese Friendship, a group of about 100 businessmen and professionals from Samawah.
"We heard Japanese people were very worried about their soldiers because it was first time in many years that they were going to be in a war," he said. "So we wanted to comfort them, tell them people here are not against them. There is no war here against Japan."
The manager of a mosque near the market, Karim Mohammad Ali, said he would ordinarily be opposed to the presence of more foreign troops. "But the Japanese are different -- they are here to build, not destroy," he said.