Japan to pull troops from Iraq


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TOKYO, Japan (AP) -- Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced plans Tuesday to withdraw troops from Iraq at a ruling party meeting, a party official said, moving to end Japan's largest and most dangerous military mission since World War II.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of party protocol, said Koizumi told a meeting of the Liberal Democratic Party that he would make a public announcement of the pullout later in the day.
"We've finished this chapter," Kyodo News agency quoted Koizumi -- a vocal supporter of U.S. policy in Iraq -- as saying. The move comes less than two weeks before Koizumi travels to Washington for a summit with U.S. President George W. Bush.
Japan has about 600 troops in the city of Samawah in southern Iraq. Although the mission is strictly non-combat and humanitarian, the deployment in early 2004 broke new ground as a symbol of Tokyo's more assertive military policy.
Koizumi also said Japan would consider expanding its air force operations in Iraq, an opposition leader said.
Koizumi made the comment while explaining his decision to announce the withdrawal of ground troops from southern Iraq to opposition lawmakers, said Kazuo Shii, leader of the Communist Party of Japan.
"Koizumi told me that he would like to consider expanding the activities of the Air Self-Defense Force," Shii told reporters after the meeting.
Japan's move was prompted by the announcement on Monday that Britain and Australia would hand over responsibility for security to Iraqi forces in Iraq's southern Muthana province, where the Japanese troops are based.
In Canberra, Australia Defense Minister Brendan Nelson said on Tuesday that Australia would re-assign its 460 troops protecting Japanese forces to help the Iraqi military secure the border with Saudi Arabia.
"It has the potential to be more dangerous for our soldiers. We don't underestimate the risk," he told reporters. (Full story)
Concerns have been high in Japan that its troops could be drawn into the fighting in Iraq, and the shift in security responsibility was apparently being taken as a chance by Tokyo to withdraw.
All major Japanese newspapers reported Tuesday morning that Koizumi would announce Japan's troop withdrawal after meeting with ruling and opposition party leaders to obtain consent, followed by a final decision by the government's national security meeting.
July completion

Defense Chief Fukushiro Nukaga will then issue an order for the withdrawal to begin later Tuesday, for a planned completion by the end of July, the Yomiuri newspaper reported.
Koizumi said in a televised news conference Monday that he wanted the withdrawal to be smooth and coordinated with Iraqi authorities. He also said Japan would continue to provide support for Iraq after the withdrawal.
The military mission has had only tepid support among the Japanese public, which has voiced concern about the safety of troops in Iraq and the possibility that the dispatch would make Japan a target of terrorists.
Critics also say the dispatch violates the U.S.-drafted 1947 constitution, which foreswears the use of force to settle international disputes. The Iraq mission followed a dispatch of Japanese ships to offer logistical support for military action in Afghanistan.
While no Japanese soldiers suffered casualties, other citizens in Iraq were targeted by militants demanding a Japanese withdrawal. Seven Japanese have been kidnapped in Iraq since the dispatch, and two of them were killed.
Japanese backpacker Shosei Koda, 24, was kidnapped and decapitated in Iraq in October 2004. Militants claimed to have abducted Akihito Saito, 44, a Japanese security manager employed by the British company Hart GMSSCO. A later statement said he died of wounds suffered in an ambush.
Throughout, Koizumi was steadfast in his insistence on continuing the dispatch, despite polls that showed most Japanese were against it.
The harshest test of the policy came in April 2004, when three Japanese aid workers were kidnapped and threatened with death unless Tokyo withdrew. Koizumi refused, and all three were later released unharmed.
Still, opposition to the dispatch was strong. A poll published in the national Asahi newspaper late last year showed 69 percent of respondents opposed to continuing the mission. Nevertheless, Japan's government in December extended the dispatch for another year.
After the ground troop withdrawal, Japan's air force is expected to expand its transport activities in Iraq from a base in neighboring Kuwait.
The expected announcement of the withdrawal coincides with assessments by some officials that North Korea may be poised to launch a missile that some experts say could reach as far as Alaska.