• The Associated Press

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The last batch of Ground Self-Defense Force troops touched down on Japanese soil Tuesday, wrapping up the country’s humanitarian mission in Iraq, its biggest and most dangerous overseas deployment since World War II.

About 280 GSDF troops arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda airport by plane from Kuwait, Defense Agency spokesman Hirokazu Shirota said. They were the last of three flights bringing the troops back.

The arrival ends 2 1/2 years of noncombat, humanitarian work in Samawah in support of the U.S.-led coalition. The mission helped raise Japan’s international profile and strengthen ties with its biggest ally, the United States, but also tested the limits of the Constitution and was criticized at home.

The first group of troops returned July 20, the second last Sunday.

“They have all returned safely,” Shirota said.

Security duties in the southern province where they were deployed will be transferred from the U.S.-led coalition to Iraqi forces.

Japan is not completely withdrawing from the region. Government officials have said Air Self-Defense Force operations will be expanded to ferry U.N. and coalition personnel and supplies from Kuwait to Iraq.

Shirota said Tuesday the expanded air operations have yet to begin.

The 2004 troop dispatch, Japan’s largest since the war and the first to an area experiencing combat, was allowed under a special law because the Constitution bans participation in warfare.

The Samawah base maintained a force level of 600, with 5,500 troops rotated in and out.

The troops’ activities in Iraq were greatly limited, however. Assigned to a sparsely populated part of southern Iraq, they were heavily dependent on Dutch, Australian and British forces for security, and suffered no combat-related casualties.

Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Taro Aso said Japan is open to sending peacekeeping troops back to Iraq, but only if the security situation improves.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a strong backer of U.S. operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, has clearly stated he hopes the Samawah mission will lead to more overseas deployments.

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