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Japan Likely to Begin Early Troop Withdrawal From Iraq

Japan's foreign minister said Friday it was likely that the country's soldiers would be brought home early from Iraq, amid reports that coalition troops will transfer security responsibilities in southern Iraq to local authorities next week.

"We feel that conditions are falling into place for an early withdrawal," Taro Aso told reporters Friday. Japan's deployment of about 600 noncombat troops were scheduled to remain in southern Iraq until Dec. 14.

Aso's comments came after a news report said British, Australian and Japanese troops will transfer security responsibilities in southern Iraq to Iraqi authorities next week, and soon withdraw from the area.

At a defense meeting of the three countries last week in London, British officials told their counterparts that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will announce the transfer of security authority in southern Iraq on Tuesday, Kyodo News agency reported, citing people close to the coalition forces.

CountryWatch: Iraq

London will then immediately announce the pullout of its forces from the southern province of al-Muthanna, and Japan and Australia will follow with a similar announcement Wednesday, Kyodo said.

Japan's pullout could be complete as early as July, according to the report.

Speaking earlier Friday, Japan's top government spokesman Shinzo Abe said Tokyo had not set a date for a withdrawal, and added that he was not aware that security responsibilities were to be soon transferred to Iraqi authorities.

Confirming the report of a transfer of security responsibilities, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Salam Zikam Ali al-Zubaie said: "There is an agreement to take over the security responsibilities from the British, Australian and Japanese forces in southern Iraq during this month." He did not specify the date.

"We hope that the Iraqi security forces will live up to their duties there," he said. "It is the dream of all Iraqis that our forces will handle security issues all over Iraq."

Japan has about 600 noncombat troops in al-Muthanna's capital, Samawah, carrying out humanitarian tasks. Australia has about 460 soldiers guarding the Japanese in Samawah, while Britain has about 8,000 troops in southern Iraq.

Australian officials confirmed Tokyo had informed them of their intention to withdraw.

"At the moment we are there protecting the Japanese engineers, and the Japanese have indicated their intention to withdraw their contingent," said Nigel Blunden, a spokesman for Australia's Defense Minister Brendan Nelson.

"We have indicated we'll move to a different role once the Japanese leave," he said. Blunden added he did not expect a Japanese pullout to be announced in the next few days.

Japan has been a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. It sent noncombat troops to Samawah in 2004, but their actions have been severely limited by Japan's pacifist constitution.