U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney told Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Monday that Washington would do its best to help rescue three Japanese nationals being held hostage in Iraq.

Koizumi said he is grateful for the cooperation of the U.S. and that Japan would continue with its reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Self-Defense Forces troops are deployed to the southern Iraqi city of Samawah. Cheney is in Tokyo on a four-day visit through Tuesday.

“I believe the activities of the SDF in Samawah are essential” to Iraq’s reconstruction, Cheney was quoted as saying by a Japanese official who briefed reporters. “Japan’s policy on Iraq is taking the right course and we appreciate it.”

The Japanese government is struggling to achieve the release of the three hostages.

After Japan, Cheney will visit China and South Korea. His Asia trip is likely to be overshadowed by escalated violence in Iraq and the holding of foreign hostages.

Japanese officials refused to reveal the content of the discussions about the hostages.

The kidnappers, who have identified themselves as Saraya al-Mujahideen, threatened to kill the Japanese civilians unless Japan withdraws its troops from Iraq. But Koizumi has said he will not cave in to such a threat.

Cheney said recent violence in Iraq has been committed by small groups that do not reflect the sentiment of the majority of the Iraqis.

Koizumi and Cheney agreed that international society, including the United Nations, should help with Iraq’s reconstruction.

Cheney said Washington will cooperate with U.N. envoy Rakhdar Brahimi on what measures should be taken after the U.S. transfers sovereignty to Iraq’s interim government by the end of June.

Koizumi said Iraqis should take the lead in rebuilding their country. His comment was an indirect criticism of the aggressive occupation policy of the U.S.

He said the U.S. and Japan should help the Iraqis in such efforts.

It was widely expected that Cheney would urge Japan to reopen its market to U.S. beef. But the official said he did not bring up the subject during the meeting.

Japan banned imports of U.S. beef after the U.S. in December discovered its first case of mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Meanwhile on Pyongyang, Cheney said North Korea’s nuclear weapons program should be dismantled in a complete, verifiable and irreversible way through a six-party framework involving the North and South Korea, China, Japan, the U.S. and Russia.

He said he hopes the “extremely tragic” issue of Japanese nationals abducted to North Korea will be resolved.

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