Taro Aso denies Japan mulling troop withdrawal from Iraq

The Japanese foreign minister on Tuesday denied reports that Japan will withdraw its troops from Iraq by May, saying Japan's priority was to bring security back to the war-torn country. "The Japanese government has not discussed a specific timeframe (for the withdrawal)," Foreign Minister Taro Aso told reporters Tuesday. "Restoring Iraq's internal security is the biggest challenge. ... We will withdraw once the situation recovers," the minister said of Japan's noncombat mission to the southern Iraqi city of Samawah.

Aso's comments followed a report published Tuesday by Kyodo News agency that said Japan will start withdrawing its 600 troops from Iraq in March, and complete its pullout in May at about the same time that British and Australian forces leave the area.

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, without citing sources.

The report also said Tokyo was 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. The Sankei Shimbun, a national daily, carried a similar report.

Japan, Washington's top ally in East Asia, 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 Cabinet approved a one-year extension of that mission in December, which authorized the government to keep troops there for a year but did not necessarily guarantee that it would.

Meanwhile, 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.

Also Tuesday, the Australian government said it would review its troop commitment if it gets official word from Tokyo that Japan's forces would leave the country.

"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, reports the AP.


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