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Japan's Lawmakers Move To Extend Afghan Naval Mission

TOKYO (Reuters) -- Japan took a step toward extending its naval mission in support of U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan when parliament's lower house approved a bill extending its mandate for another year.

Prime Minister Taro Aso has campaigned to keep the mission going, saying Japan must back up its biggest ally and fulfill its global security responsibilities.

The bill is likely to be rejected quickly in the opposition-controlled upper house next week, media say, enabling the ruling coalition to pass it by voting for it a second time in the more powerful lower house using its two-thirds majority.

"In order to respond to the great expectations from the international community, our country needs to play an important role in the war against terrorism by continuing the refueling activities," ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Ben Kimura told parliament before the lower house vote on October 21.

The mission was halted for months from last November because the opposition-dominated upper house, many of whose members say it breaches the pacifist constitution, sat on the bill for weeks.

This year, the main opposition Democratic Party has decided to act swiftly, hoping that doing so will eliminate an item from Aso's must-do list, pushing him towards calling an early general election for the lower house, domestic media say.

Japan's government is keen to maintain Afghan support for the United States, the legal mandate for which expires in January, especially because it is preparing to end its military involvement in Iraq by around the end of the year.

But the naval mission has been controversial, with critics saying some of the refueled ships went on to take part in operations not connected with Afghanistan.

Washington has said it hopes Japan will consider additional support in Afghanistan. U.S. officials have asked Tokyo to send in large transport planes and helicopters, which are in short supply in Afghanistan, where roads are poor, the "Daily Yomiuri" newspaper said on October 20. That would require further legislation.