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Japan orders navy to return to rejoin US-backed anti-terrorism mission in Indian Ocean

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    TOKYO — Japan’s defense minister ordered the navy Friday to return to the Indian Ocean on a U.S.-backed anti-terrorism mission, ending a three-month hiatus but deepening political divisions with the opposition.
    Washington lobbied strongly for the deployment, including a rare public foray into domestic politics by U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer who had met with lawmakers to urge their support.
    Japan had refueled ships since 2001 in support of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, but was forced to abandon the mission in November, when the opposition blocked an extension, saying it violated Japan’s pacifist constitution and did not have the United Nations’ backing.
    Public opinion polls show increasing support for sending troops abroad — as long as it does not involve combat. But the opposition accused the ruling camp of forcing its will on the people.
    Friday’s order was issued by Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba after Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s ruling coalition forced a bill through the country’s parliament to revive the mission.
    Fukuda said he expects the ships to leave by the end of the month, meaning they could be back in the Indian Ocean in February.
    Unable to build a consensus, Fukuda’s ruling coalition made the rare move of using its two-thirds majority in the lower house to overrule the opposition-controlled upper house, which voted down the mission on Thursday. It was the first such override since 1951.
    ‘‘We want to restart this mission as soon as possible,’’ Ishiba said. ‘‘We are committed to actively contribute to the fight against terrorism.’’
    Under the new orders, Japanese ships will monitor possible terrorist activity at sea and will refuel and resupply ally vessels, but will not directly be involved in the hostilities in Afghanistan — a restriction aimed at winning over a public wary of violating the spirit of the post-World War II constitution.
    When the mission was halted, only two Japanese ships, a tanker and a destroyer, were in the region. The new mission was also expected to involve only two or three ships at a time.
    Officials said the mission, though tightly restricted, symbolizes Japan’s commitment to the war on terror and its support of Washington, its main ally and trading partner.
    Fukuda and other ruling-party lawmakers have stressed that Japan must fulfill its obligations in the global war against terrorism and accept a security role commensurate with its economic clout.
    Schieffer, the U.S. ambassador, lauded the bill’s passage on Friday.
    ‘‘Terrorism is the bane of our time,’’ he said in a statement. ‘‘Japan has demonstrated its willingness to stand with those who are trying to create a safer, more tolerant world.’’
    So far, Japan has supplied 132 million gallons of fuel to coalition warships, including those from the U.S., Britain and Pakistan, according to the Japanese government.
    ‘‘This is a clear abuse of power,’’ said Yoshito Sengoku, a lawmaker of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan. ‘‘The government will now surely lose the trust of the people.’’

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