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    Iraqi Prime Minister Says Japanese Troops Must Not Leave

    Iraq's prime minister says it is essential for Japanese troops to remain in his country. His appeal came as Iraq's oil minister, accompanying the prime minister, signed a deal with the Japanese government that is meant to significantly boost oil production in the war-torn country.

    Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari says Japan's billions of dollars of support in grants, soft loans and debt forgiveness are invaluable in helping his country recover from the damage suffered under the Sadaam Hussein regime.

    The Iraqi leader said Tuesday that Tokyo eventually will be amply rewarded for its support of Iraq, which includes the presence of the Japanese military.

    Prime Minister al-Jaafari tells reporters that Iraq needs Japan to keep its non-combat troops in Samawah. He says the new Iraqi government to be elected by the people later this month can decide at a stable and secure time when the Japanese forces will no longer be needed.

    Japan's Cabinet on Thursday is to vote on extending the 600-troop mission - the largest dispatch of military personnel the country has made since World War II. Polls in Japan find that some three-quarters of the public oppose the military mission in Iraq.

    Under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi Japan has taken a more active role in Middle East diplomacy. Mr. Koizumi will make an official trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories next month - the first visit by a Japanese leader in a decade.

    The Palestinian Authority's de facto ambassador in Tokyo, Waleed Siam, says Arab states are receptive to a more prominent Japanese role in the region.

    "The perception of Japan is completely different - it's no comparison to the Americans unfortunately, nowadays. It is more welcome as a partner in the Middle East than the American forces," he said. "If you want to send Japanese forces, I think, they'll be more acceptable than sending American forces to area. That's why Japan can play a balanced equation here."

    Japanese officials say they have signed an agreement on Tuesday to help expand Iraq's oil production capacity to two million barrels a day by next year.

    The Iraqi Oil Minister Mohammad Bahr al-Ulum on Tuesday asked Japanese officials for help with liquefied petroleum gas and refinery projects in Basra.

    Japan says it will consider financing the oil and gas projects with yen loans and pledges to train about one thousand Iraqi engineers.

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