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Japan Iraq withdrawal may be delayed: Minister

Written by: Staff
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Tokyo, Apr 2: Japan may delay the withdrawal of its troops from southern Iraq because of the unstable situation in that country, perhaps until as late as autumn, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso said today.

No formal decision had been made on when to bring the roughly 600 noncombat troops home from the southern city of Samawa, where they have been engaged in reconstruction work, but media reports had said the government wanted to withdraw the troops by the end of May.

Tokyo has long said its withdrawal would have to be coordinated with the British and Australian governments, whose troops have been providing security for Japanese personnel since their activities are limited by Japan's pacifist constitution.

Aso repeated this today, adding that weeks of deadlock in Iraq over a national unity government and formation of a cabinet have made the overall Iraqi situation unclear.

''I don't think we should be the first to leave, just due to our own circumstances,'' he told an Asahi television talk show.

''It is extremely important to coordinate things, and withdrawing together would be the most desirable.'' Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has repeatedly said that Japan would have to carefully consider the situation in Iraq before deciding on a troop pullout.

Asked whether the withdrawal would take place by the time Koizumi's term as prime minister ends in September, Aso -- himself a leading contender for the job, said that would depend on how stable Iraq had become.

''The biggest idea is whether a government can be formed or not,'' he said, indicating that it was possible the decision on withdrawal may be made by Koizumi but the actual withdrawal overseen by his successor.

Two weeks ago, Aso was quoted as telling Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer that the situation in Iraq did not permit a decision on when to withdraw the troops.

Japan's dispatch of troops to Iraq, their riskiest mission since the end of World War Two, has won praise from key ally Washington but is opposed by a majority of voters.

Iraq held elections in December, but the formation of a unity government, which US and Iraqi officials say is vital to avert all-out war after five weeks of spiralling sectarian bloodshed, has yet to take place.

REUTERS

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