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TOKYO (AP) -- Two Japanese diplomats were killed after their car was ambushed near the Iraqi city of Tikrit, Japan's Foreign Minister said Sunday.
Yoriko Kawaguchi said the two had been in Tikrit to attend a reconstruction aid conference.
The deaths are the first of Japanese in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion, and could have a severe impact on Tokyo's plans to send non-combat troops to help the reconstruction of that country.
Their driver, whose nationality was not immediately known, was seriously injured, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiro Okuyama.
"The two were working day and night for the reconstruction of Iraq," Kawaguchi said at a news conference. "Their deaths are extremely regrettable. I am at a loss for words. I express my condolences to their families from the bottom of my heart."
Kawaguchi said there would be no change to Japan's plans to dispatch troops to support the U.S.-led reconstruction of Iraq.
Japan's defense chief said Friday that a recent fact-finding team indicated conditions are "rather stable" in southern Iraq, where the Japanese government is preparing to send ground troops to help with reconstruction.
Koizumi has been a firm supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and has emphasized Japan has a responsibility to help rebuild the country. But he has hesitated to put troops on the group as near-daily attacks on coalition forces have shaken public support for the mission.
His defense chief's comments suggested the government may be satisfied with security conditions in a sector near the southern city of Samawah that Japan has been considering for a deployment that will reportedly involve more than 1,000 soldiers from the nation's Ground Self-Defense Force.
Japanese national media reported that Koizumi's Cabinet may give its approval as early as next week for an operation in which ground troops would arrive in Iraq early next year.
Parliament approved the deployment of ground troops in July but only on condition that they serve in "non-combat areas," which Koizumi's opponents argue don't exist in Iraq.
Japanese troops have not set foot in a country at war since World War II, and none has died in fighting while on a peacekeeping mission. Its only overseas casualties have been a sailor who died of a heart attack at sea and two Japanese civilians who were slain while supervising elections in Cambodia in 1993.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)