TOKYO, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- Japan plans to remove its troops from Iraq in the coming months says a senior official, the first time its government has publicly addressed the issue of withdrawal from the conflict.
"The exit from Iraq is this year's biggest theme," said Kyoji Yanagisawa, deputy chief cabinet secretary said in a speech reported by the Kyodo news agency, according to the Financial Times. "At any rate, [Japan's Ground Self-Defence Force, equal to the army] will withdraw within several months".
The presence of 550 non-combat troops in southern Iraq has been a sensitive issue for the Japanese public, the majority of which was opposed to deploying soldiers to Iraq for reconstruction.
The government said in December that troops would remain in Iraq until the end of the year, though no promises were made.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has curried favor in Washington for sending forces despite public disapproval. Observers say the change of tack is likely to put more pressure on the U.S. and its coalition allies to begin withdrawal.
The U.S., for its part, has also suggested a phased pull out could begin sooner than later.
President George W. Bush calculated a month ago that troop levels in Iraq would soon drop below the 138,000 personnel that had been present before the country's parliamentary elections in December.