• The Associated Press


Japanese troops may stay in southern Iraq until a degree of political stability is restored in the country, Foreign Minister Taro Aso said Sunday, denying media reports they might pull out by May.

Officials have repeatedly said they will carefully consider security conditions, as well as plans of British and Australian troops stationed there, before deciding when to withdraw the 600 troops from the southern city of Samawah.

Aso echoed the caution Sunday on a TV Asahi talk show, denying media reports of an imminent withdrawal.

“The creation of the Iraqi government is in no way complete. . . . We can’t make definite decisions on withdrawal until the security and political situation becomes clearer,” Aso said.

“It’s most desirable that we coordinate our withdrawal with British and Australian troops,” he added. The Japanese troops are heavily dependent on British and Australian forces for security.

Asked whether the withdrawal would take place during Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s term in office, which ends in September, Aso said that would depend on whether stability had been restored to Iraq.

Japan, Washington’s top ally in East Asia, has been a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and dispatched troops there in 2004 to purify water and carry out other humanitarian tasks.

The Cabinet approved an extension of the mission in December, authorizing soldiers to stay in Iraq through the end of this year.

But public opinion polls show most Japanese oppose the mission, which has been criticized as a violation of the pacifist Constitution. Many say the deployment has made Japan a target for terrorism.

Iraq held elections in December and a newly elected Parliament was seated earlier this month. But a deadlock continues between its Shiite Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurdish representatives over the makeup of a new government amid increasing sectarian violence.

Britain, the United States’ strongest supporter in the Iraq war, has about 8,000 soldiers in Iraq but plans to pull out 800 of them by May. Australia has more than 1,300 troops serving in Iraq and on a naval ship in the Persian Gulf.

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