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Japan weighs extending Iraq mission

TOKYO --Japan's top government spokesman said Monday that Tokyo is undecided about whether to extend the nation's air force mission in Iraq when it expires in July, but that a decision is expected by the end of this month.

Tokyo has been airlifting U.N. and coalition personnel and supplies into Baghdad and other Iraqi cities from nearby Kuwait since last year as part of efforts to support the reconstruction of Iraq.

The mission is set to end July 31, and debate is already gearing up about whether Tokyo will continue its contributions to a war increasingly unpopular at home.

"Discussions are going on, but we have not decided on any specific policy yet," Chief Cabinet spokesman Yasuhisa Shiozaki said. "A decision will be made by the end of this month."

Japan backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and provided ground troops for a non-combat, humanitarian mission in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah from early 2004.

Japan withdrew the ground troops in July last year, and has since expanded its Kuwait-based air operations.

The Iraq mission is part of Japan's bid to boost its international profile. Tokyo also approved in late October a one-year extension of its naval mission in the Indian Ocean to support the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan.

But some in Japan criticize the operations for violating the pacifist constitution, which prohibits the use of force in solving international disputes.