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South Korea to send 3,000 troops to Iraq
( 2003-12-18 10:40) (Agencies)

South Korea finalized plans Wednesday to send 3,000 troops to Iraq as Asian governments expressed optimism for peace and the U.S.-led reconstruction following Saddam Hussein's capture.

Japan plans to send its first main troop contingent in late February after months of delay, a major Japanese newspaper reported Wednesday. And Thailand reportedly will keep hundreds of its troops in Iraq with hopes that security will improve following Saturday's seizure of Saddam by U.S. forces.

The emboldened military plans among Washington's allies underscore the growing sense of optimism for Iraq since the capture, despite the official wariness voiced by many leaders.

"It is hard to judge how the security situation will change short term," South Korean Defense Minister Cho Young-kil said while announcing the decision on the troops. "But in the long term, I believe the resistance will falter and weaken in the absence of their leader."

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi have defended troop dispatches as a duty to both their top ally, the United States, and to regional stability in the Middle East.

But sending troops is deeply unpopular with the public in both countries. And the plans have drawn further criticism since late last month when Japanese diplomats and South Korean reconstruction engineers were killed in separate attacks amid spiraling violence.

Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said earlier that 422 Thai troops on humanitarian duties in Iraq might have to be withdrawn if the violence against coalition forces continued.

But after Saddam's capture, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra predicted a new era of opportunity for Iraqi reconstruction and confirmed his nation's humanitarian mission would continue until its one-year agreement with the United States ends next year.

"International efforts to rehabilitate and reconstruct Iraq can, from now on, be accelerated," he was quoted as saying Monday by the Thai News Agency. "I believe that the world situation will improve ... after the arrest of the former Iraqi leader, especially the situation in war-torn Iraq."

In Japan, Koizumi's Cabinet had already approved a basic blueprint to send 1,000 military personnel to southern Iraq for reconstruction work and other non-combat duties.

On Tuesday, the Defense Agency reportedly stepped up those plans by submitting a proposed dispatch schedule to the Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling bloc for approval, the national Mainichi newspaper said.

An advance team would go to Iraq next month to prepare for the arrival of 135 soldiers in the southern city of Samawah. Those troops will leave for Iraq on Feb. 21 and stay at the Dutch military's base.

About 550 others, who will make up the bulk of the deployment, are expected to be in Iraq by late March, the daily said. An advance team of 78 soldiers would leave on Jan. 31 to pitch camp for them.

Still, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda warned Wednesday that his country was on the alert for possible retaliatory attacks by loyalists of the fallen Iraqi leader.

South Korea finalized its plans to send 3,000 troops, including combat-ready special operations soldiers and marines. Yet underlining Seoul's cautious approach, defense chief Cho said they wouldn't be dispatched for at least another four months. Extra time was needed for further training, he said.

A team of South Korean military officials left for Washington to discuss when and where their soldiers should be dispatched.

Seoul wants its troops to be responsible for an entire region of Iraq, handling both security and reconstruction. South Korea's opposition-controlled National Assembly needs to approve the dispatch and is expected to support it. The plan is expected to be sent to parliament next week.

Another staunch U.S. ally, Australia has about 800 non-combat troops in Iraq and the Gulf region after sending 2,000 to fight in the war. It also has no plans to waver. "Our present approach is we will be in there for years," Chief of the Defense Force, Gen. Peter Cosgrove, said earlier. "We will evolve from whatever we are doing at the moment to whatever is useful at the time."

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