TOKYO—Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Tuesday that Japan would pull its 600 troops out of Iraq after a two-year deployment that strengthened its alliance with the United States but distressed some citizens at home.
The move will end Japan's first foray into an active war zone since World War II.
Koizumi said Iraqi forces were assuming control of an area where multinational troops had been protecting a Japanese noncombat mission, opening the door to Japan's withdrawal.
"We played a big role in reconstructing the water supply, offering medical support, building schools and rebuilding roads," Koizumi said.
He didn't say how soon the Japanese Self-Defense Force troops would leave Iraq, but Defense Chief Fukushiro Nukaga indicated that it could be a matter of weeks.
The announcement came as Koizumi, who'll leave office in September, prepares for a farewell tour to the United States on June 29-30. President Bush will give him a parting gift of a trip to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. Koizumi is a big Elvis fan.
Japan's troop deployment to Iraq stirred some discontent at home. Critics said it violated Japan's constitution, which bans the use of force to settle disputes.
While the timing of the pullout might seem ill-considered, given Koizumi's upcoming trip to Washington, analysts said the Bush administration was grateful for Japan's symbolic step in sending troops to Iraq, a sign of stronger ties between the countries.
"The alliance relationship between the United States and Japan is healthier and seems to be more important to Washington than at any time in recent decades," said Malcolm Cook, a Japan expert at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, a research center in Sydney, Australia.
Koizumi's announcement may be intended to boost Cabinet chief Shinzo Abe, who aspires to become prime minister, by removing a volatile issue from public debate.
Koizumi has pushed Japan to expand its role on the international stage, stretching the restrictions in its pacifist constitution. While facing some opposition, he found support in a public that's increasingly fearful of a nuclear-armed North Korea and a rising China. Even the political opposition has grown hawkish on defense.
In the latest sign of its more aggressive international stance, Japan this month offered Indonesia three bulletproof patrol boats to crack down on piracy in the Malacca Strait, exempting the boats from Japan's self-imposed arms-export ban.
No Japanese troops were killed or wounded in Iraq, but Japanese citizens have been taken hostage and at least two died at the hands of insurgents. Two Japanese diplomats also were slain in 2003 near Tikrit.
Japan's forces have been deployed in the city of Samawah, in southern Iraq, where British and Australian forces provide perimeter control to ensure their safety.
While the troops will return home, Japan's national NHK broadcaster said the country would continue to station C-130 cargo planes in the region in a support role.
Troop deployments to Iraq also have been unpopular in neighboring South Korea, the third-largest contributor to the U.S.-led coalition. Last month, Seoul began to draw down 1,000 of its 3,277 soldiers, who are stationed in the northern town of Irbil on a reconstruction mission.
(Doi reported from Tokyo, Johnson from Beijing.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060620 Japan Iraq
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): JAPAN-IRAQ