Japan to begin pulling troops from Iraq in March

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

TOKYO -- Japan will begin withdrawing its troops from Iraq in March and complete the pullout by May, ending its largest military mission since the end of World War II, a news report said Tuesday.

Japan, which extended its noncombat mission to the southern Iraqi city of Samawah for another year in December, will pull its 600 troops out at about the same time that British and Australian forces leave the area, Kyodo News agency said.

The extension of the noncombat mission in December gave the government the right to keep troops in Iraq for a year but did not necessarily guarantee that it would.

Officials from Australia, Britain, Japan and the U.S. reached a basic agreement over the timing of the withdrawals at a secret meeting in London last Monday, Kyodo said. Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force will hand over its camp to local residents after its pullout, according to the report.

A Defense Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing government protocol, said no official decisions had been made regarding Japan's Iraqi mission.

Tokyo is separately considering a request from the U.S. to boost its 200-strong air force deployment to Kuwait, which currently transports humanitarian goods to southern Iraq, Kyodo said, without citing sources.

Washington's top ally in East Asia, Japan has been a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and dispatched troops there in 2004 to purify water and carry out other humanitarian tasks.

The mission, Japan's largest overseas military dispatch since World War II, has grown increasingly unpopular with the public. Many Japanese say the deployment violates the constitution and has made Japan a target for terrorism.

The Australian government said Tuesday it had not gotten official word that Japan's forces will leave the country, but would review Australia's troop commitment following a formal announcement.

"If we are formally informed by the Japanese government that it intends to withdraw its engineers from southern Iraq, the Australian government will then review the commitment that we have with our troops in that area," Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson told reporters Tuesday.

Australia has 450 troops protecting the Japanese contingent, but has hundreds more on other assignments in and around Iraq, including soldiers protecting diplomats in Baghdad and a navy ship HMAS Parramatta patrolling the Gulf.

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