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Japan PM announces Iraq troop withdrawal

Tokyo, June 20
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced on Tuesday that Japan will withdraw its troops from Iraq, ending the Japanese military's riskiest and most ambitious overseas mission since World War Two.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Monday his forces would take over security from July in the southern province of Muthanna, where the British oversee a multinational contingent that includes Japanese troops.

Japan's troop dispatch -- a symbol of Tokyo's willingness to put ``boots on the ground'' for its close ally, the United States, and to take a bigger global security role -- won praise from Washington. But it was opposed by many at home including critics who said the dispatch violated Japan's pacifist constitution.

``I want to express my profound respect and gratitude to the Self-Defense Forces (troops) who sweated in tough conditions with the strong awareness they were conducting their activities in Iraq for all of the Japanese people,'' Koizumi told a news conference at which he pledged to keep supporting Iraq's nation building.

The decision to withdraw comes ahead of Koizumi's visit to Washington for talks with President George W. Bush in late June and before he steps down as Prime Minister in September.

No Japanese soldiers have been killed or wounded in Iraq, but Koizumi faced a political crisis in 2004 when three Japanese civilians were taken hostage by insurgents. The three, as well as two others taken hostage later, were released unharmed.

In all, six Japanese citizens, including two diplomats, have been killed by insurgents in Iraq. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso said the troops had won high marks for their military discipline.

``I think such views have made a very big contribution to improving the brand image of Japan as a country,'' he told a news conference ahead of the official announcement. Japan has said its withdrawal from the southern city of Samawa had to be coordinated with Britain and Australia, whose troops provide security for the roughly 550 Japanese soldiers engaged in reconstruction and humanitarian work.

Japanese Defense Minister Fukushiro Nukaga immediately issued an order for the troop withdraw, Kyodo news agency said. The process could be completed by the end of July, Kyodo said.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the Australian troops would keep ``looking after the Japanese until the Japanese have gone, and I expect that to be quite soon.'' Reuters

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