TOKYO – Japan will withdraw its non-combat troops deployed in southern Iraq at the same time that Britain and Australia pull their troops out, a news report said Tuesday.
Defense Agency Director General Fukushiro Nukaga officially told Washington on Monday about the terms under which Japan plans to pull out the 600 troops it has stationed in Samawah, southern Muthana province, on a humanitarian mission, Kyodo News agency reported.
"The foundations for reconstruction in Muthana province to a certain extent have been completed," Nukaga told a meeting of senior U.S. and Japanese defense and foreign ministry officials in Washington, according to an unidentified Japanese official cited by Kyodo.
"We want to complete our troops' activities at the same time as the British and Australian forces do, provided conditions allow," he said, according to Kyodo.
A spokeswoman for the defense agency, however, said that Kyodo had misinterpreted the minister's comments. Tokyo has not changed its policy and would consider the state of Iraq's reconstruction, the plans of other coalition partners and local safety conditions before deciding when it will withdraw troops, she said, speaking anonymously as per agency policy.
Nukaga had also told the officials that Japan will keep its C-130 transport aircraft it has stationed in Kuwait for airlifting supplies in the region after the withdrawal, Kyodo said.
While speculation had been rising that Japan would start to withdraw its soldiers this spring, Foreign Minister Taro Aso suggested in early April that Japan may keep them there until a degree of political stability is restored to the country.
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 there in 2004 to purify water and carry out other humanitarian tasks.
The Cabinet approved an extension of that mission in December, authorizing soldiers to stay in Iraq through the end of this year.
But public opinion polls show the majority of Japanese oppose the mission, which has been criticized as a violation of the constitution. Many say the deployment has made Japan a target for terrorism.
Britain has about 8,000 soldiers in Iraq, but plans to pull out 800 of them this month. Australia repeatedly has said it will keep forces in the country until Iraqi authorities say they no longer are needed. Australia has more than 1,300 troops serving in Iraq and on a navy ship patrolling the Persian Gulf.
Both countries are staunch supporters of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Defense officials from Britain, Australia and Japan have held periodic meetings to coordinate their deployments with the U.S., which has about 133,000 troops in Iraq.