Japan PM announces Iraq troop withdrawal

By Linda Sieg

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan has decided to withdraw its troops from Iraq, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced on Tuesday, 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 despatch -- 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 despatch violated Japan's pacifist constitution.

The decision to withdraw comes ahead of Koizumi's visit to Washington for talks with President George W. Bush in late June and the end of his term as ruling party president, and hence 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.

-continued-

Now if only the U.S. can follow suite

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