Japan Plans to Bring Troops Home as Iraqis Take Over

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 20, 2006

TOKYO, June 20 -- Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced today that he will withdraw 550 troops from Iraq, ending a landmark mission that became Tokyo's largest military-related operation since World War II.

On Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that Iraqi troops would take over security next month around the southern city of Samawah, where the Japanese and other forces are stationed. Officials here have repeatedly said that the Japanese -- whose withdrawal has been anticipated for months -- had been awaiting that decision before finalizing withdrawal plans.

In a nationally televised news conference at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Koizumi said the troops had helped rebuild the infrastructure of the area where they were based and he pledged to continue aiding Iraqi reconstruction, but he offered no timetable for withdrawal.

At a news conference a day earlier, Koizumi declined to give a specific timeline on the withdrawal but said Japan will continue to provide reconstruction and humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people even after the troops are pulled out.

"When the time comes," Koizumi said Monday, "I will decide when will be the appropriate timing to have the SDF troops return home safely after getting the understanding of other countries and the Iraqi government."

Koizumi's decision to pull out, officials said, was likely to be contingent on an announcement by the British and Australians to withdraw the forces around Samawah that had been protecting the Japanese. In Canberra, Australia, Defense Minister Brendan Nelson said Tuesday that Australia would reassign its 460 troops now protecting Japanese forces to help the Iraqi military secure the border with Syria. Nelson said the troops would be redeployed when Japan withdrew.

The Japanese withdrawal is not expected to dramatically affect the effort to rebuild Iraq. Analysts have said the Japanese mission there is more symbolic than strategic. The troops have provided engineering guidance and humanitarian services but are limited in their role by Japan's pacifist constitution and have had to count on other foreign forces for protection.

The contentious move to dispatch Japanese troops to Iraq was seen as a dramatic step for Japan, which after decades of engaging in what came to be known as "checkbook diplomacy" has shown more willingness to deploy its forces.

Despite public opposition, Koizumi pushed through the plan to dispatch Japanese ground troops in December 2003, largely in an effort to demonstrate support for the U.S.-Japan alliance. Japanese troops began arriving in Iraq in February 2004.

U.S. officials have requested that Japan continue to provide air transport assistance in Kuwait and surrounding areas. The Japanese said they would consider the request, and analysts have said Koizumi is likely to agree to the proposal.

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