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South Korea rotates non-combat troops in Iraq
( 2003-10-14 22:49) (Agencies)

South Korea prepared to send replacement non-combat troops to Iraq on Tuesday and said President Roh Moo-hyun would outline Seoul's position to the United States next week on a request for combat troops.

The United States asked South Korea last month to send the combat troops to help stabilise post-war Iraq.

South Korean media have said Washington wants Seoul to commit about 5,000 troops and to make a decision by the end of this month. It has not said where it wants the force.

But the troop decision is likely to be complicated by Roh's call for a December referendum on his rule, a move that surprised political foes and friends alike.

Yonhap news agency quoted Roh's national defence adviser, Kim Hee-sang, as saying the referendum proposal would not affect the troop decision and it was not necessary to send a second survey team to Iraq, as some opposition politicians have urged.

But the Maeil Business Newspaper quoted an unnamed presidential Blue House official as saying Ra Jong-yil, presidential security adviser, told the United States, "Any decision could be made only after the dispute over the referendum is wrapped up."

South Korea has had about 700 medical and engineering troops working out of a US base in the Iraqi town of Nassariya since May without incident.

Half of the 466 replacement troops were slated to leave South Korea for Iraq on Wednesday, and the remainder would go on October 22, defence officials said.

A South Korean fact-finding team sent to Iraq to study security said on its return last week the security picture was mixed and did not commit itself on whether troops should go.

Roh, who is scheduled to meet US President George W. Bush at an Asia-Pacific summit in Bangkok next week, faces a tough political decision in which he must weigh strong public opposition to the Iraq war against Seoul's desire to shore up its military alliance with Washington.

Protesters demonstrated on Tuesday near the US embassy against the request for combat troops.

The Blue House said Roh's agenda for talks with Bush included North Korea, trade, their military alliance and an explanation of South Korea's stance on sending troops. It was not clear whether Roh would be in a position to say definitively whether Seoul could meet the US request.

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