Japan announced Tuesday that it would pull its ground troops out of Iraq, putting an end to the country's most significant military mission since the end of World War II.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said that the force's humanitarian mission had been fulfilled, even as he announced an expansion of Japanese air support to American and multinational troops. The Air Self-Defense Force will start operating regular flights to Baghdad and Irbil, he said.
"The Ground Self-Defense Force has played a considerable role in providing humanitarian reconstruction assistance," Koizumi said, "and we have decided to withdraw."
About 600 soldiers have been based in Samawa, capital of the southern province of Muthana, since January 2004, providing clean water and medical assistance, and repairing roads and buildings. The troops, who have been limited to humanitarian, noncombat duties because of Japan's pacifist Constitution, have depended on British, Australian and Dutch forces for their security.
Koizumi's announcement came a day after the Iraqi government said that British troops would transfer the responsibility for security in the relatively peaceful province to local Iraqi forces. The Japanese withdrawal is expected to take a few weeks.
Koizumi has been one of President George W. Bush's staunchest backers on Iraq. The Japanese troops provided diplomatic support for Bush when other allies chose not to participate in the occupation. The deployment strengthened the U.S.-Japanese alliance and deepened military ties. "Japan's policy to cooperate with the United States based on the importance of the Japan- U.S. alliance has never changed and will not change," Koizumi said.
Because the troops have carried out their mission without suffering or inflicting a single casualty, Koizumi will be able to declare a successful end to the mission, both in Japan and during a visit to the United States this month.
Koizumi, who will retire as prime minister in September, is scheduled to meet Bush on June 29 in what is likely to be their last summit meeting.
The Japanese Constitution allows it to possess forces only for self-defense, and imposes strict rules of engagement that prohibit offensive action. But under Koizumi, the government passed a special law permitting the deployment of troops to noncombat areas in Iraq - a move that critics called anti-constitutional.
The deployment sharply divided public opinion at first, since Japanese troops went to Iraq equipped with weapons that they had never carried abroad before, including anti-tank weapons. To make matters worse, several Japanese civilians were kidnapped in Iraq, and two were killed.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Japan's maritime and air forces have supported the United States in its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the deployment of ground troops - with the possibility they could be embroiled in a hostile situation that would force them to act in a manner contrary to the Constitution - was one of the riskiest decisions Koizumi has made as prime minister.
In Samawa, the security situation sometimes left Japanese troops who were supposed to engage in humanitarian activities unable to leave their base, and open to charges they were merely a symbolic force. But with time, Japanese public opinion has grown less resistant to the deployment, which has set the stage for a more assertive military.
The withdrawal of multinational troops from Samawa will allow the redeployment of forces to areas with more pressing needs. Australia announced Tuesday that 460 troops protecting the Japanese would now help the Iraq Army secure the border with Syria.