Japan thinks over withdrawal from Iraq

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi could decide as early as the end of February to go ahead with plans to withdraw troops from southern Iraq later this year, a newspaper report said Thursday. The Japanese government is considering pulling out its 600 noncombat troops from the city of Samawah in the first half of the year, possibly completing a pullout by May, the Nihon Keizai newspaper reported.

Koizumi's decision on the timing of the pullout of Japan's largest military deployment since World War II will depend on Baghdad's progress in forming its next government, the paper reported, citing unidentified sources.

The Nikkei report, similar to other Japanese media reports this week but providing more details about the decision-making process and contingencies, said the withdrawal plan was discussed in a meeting of defense officials from Japan, the U.S., Britain and Australia in London last month.

An official at Japan's Defense Agency confirmed the four countries conferred about Iraq in London on Jan. 23, but refused to provide details of what was discussed or what deployment plans the other countries are considering.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of agency rules, said the meeting was unannounced, but was part of regular contacts among countries deploying troops in Iraq. The official also refused to comment on Japan's withdrawal plans or when Koizumi was expected to make a decision.

The Nikkei reported, however, that at the meeting Britain said it would accelerate plans to pull its troops from southern Iraq to March, rather than in May as originally scheduled.

Such a move could speed Tokyo's withdrawal, because the Japanese deployment, whose actions are strictly limited by the country's pacifist constitution, is heavily dependent on British and Australian troops for security.

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

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