A Japanese parliamentary panel approved a two-year extension on Monday of the country's air force mission in Iraq, brushing off criticism that Tokyo should distance itself from the United States' increasingly unpopular war there. Japan backed the US-led Iraq invasion and provided troops for a non-combat, humanitarian mission in the southern city of Samawah beginning in 2004. Tokyo withdrew its ground troops in July 2006 and has since expanded its Kuwait-based operations to airlift U.N. and coalition personnel and supplies into Baghdad. A plan to extend that mission, which expires on July 31, was approved by the Cabinet in late March, but still requires legislative approval. The extension was approved by a parliamentary panel on Monday and is expected to go before the lower house, the more powerful of parliament's two chambers, on Tuesday. "The next several years are an extremely important period for nation building for Iraq," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the panel. "We need to demonstrate that we are committed in the long-term."