Japan begins withdrawing troops from Iraq
SAMAWA, Iraq, July 7 (Reuters) Japanese troops began withdrawing from Iraq today, with the first group of ground forces arriving in neighbouring Kuwait, a Japanese spokesman said today.
The pullout of about 550 troops from a military base in southern Iraq, where they have been engaged in reconstruction and humanitarian work, will end the Japanese military's riskiest and most ambitious overseas mission since World War Two.
''Today is the beginning of the withdrawal. But it is not complete,'' said the member of the Japanese contingent press centre in Kuwait.
Earlier today, Reuters witnesses saw transport trucks leaving and helicopters flying out of the desert base in Samawa in the province of Muthanna.
Kyodo news agency said a C-130 transport aircraft carrying about 30 troops arrived at an airport in Kuwait today.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Iraqi forces would take over Muthanna security in July -- the first Iraqi province outside peaceful northern Kurdistan to be handed over to Iraqis since the US-led invasion.
The British oversee a multinational contingent in Muthanna that includes Japanese and Australian troops.
Britain says the handover of security to Iraqi forces does not mean the withdrawal of its troops from the region. They will stay on as a rapid reaction force to back up Iraq's fledgling security forces.
Handing over security to Iraqi troops is key to allow the withdrawal of the roughly 140,000 US-led foreign troops in Iraq. The vast majority of the foreign soldiers are American.
Japan's troop dispatch, a symbol of Tokyo's willingness to put ''boots on the ground'' for its close ally the United States, won praise from Washington.
But it was opposed by many at home including critics who said the dispatch violated Japan's pacifist constitution.
REUTERS SI PM2012