Japan deciding to support U.S.-led coalition or not

Japan will assess Iraq's safety following its recent constitutional referendum before deciding whether to extend a soon-to-expire troop dispatch in support of the U.S.-led coalition, the government's top spokesman said Friday. Japan has about 550 troops in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah, conducting reconstruction and humanitarian work. Legislation allowing the dispatch expires on Dec. 14, and the government has not yet decided whether to extend it.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said the government wants to decide as soon as possible, but still has nearly two months to see how the Iraqi government evolves in the wake of last weekend's constitutional referendum in Iraq.

"From now on there will be a lot of changes in Iraq," Hosoda said. "Whether the terrorist activities and the safety situation will change drastically or not over the constitutional issue will soon become clearer."

Concern about extending the mission has been fueled by speculation that British and Australian troops, which provide security for Japanese forces near Samawah, are preparing to withdraw.

U.S. and Iraqi leaders had feared the constitutional referendum could turn bloody, but the day turned out to be the most peaceful in months, amid a heavy clampdown by U.S.-Iraqi forces across the country, the AP reports.

Japan's Foreign Ministry on Sunday applauded the nationwide vote as an important step toward building a harmonious country, and pledged continued support for the democratization process.

Teams of international and Iraqi election officials are now auditing the referendum's initial results, which showed an unexpectedly high number of "yes" votes. Sunni Arabs, who largely oppose the charter, charged fraud when initial results showed it had been approved and accused the government's Shiite and Kurdish leaders of fixing the balloting.