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S. Korea won't send troops to Iraqi city
Updated: 2004-03-19 14:15

South Korea canceled plans to send troops to the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, citing US pressure to participate in "offensive operations," but still plans to send the forces to help rebuild the country, the Defense Ministry said Friday.

South Korean special policemen stand guard at the Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, Wednesday, March 17, 2004. South Korean acting President Goh Kun on Wednesday called a meeting of senior officials to review anti-terrorism efforts, saying the country is a possible terrorist target following last week's deadly bombings in Spain. [AP Photo]

The ministry said it was looking for another location to send the promised 3,600 forces.

Seoul's dispatch, which would make South Korea the biggest coalition partner after the United States and Britain, was scheduled to come as early as next month. But Friday's decision means the mission might be delayed.

South Korea's Defense Ministry said the "United States cited inevitability for offensive operations to keep security in order in the Kirkuk area," and proposed that a certain number of US troops remain in Kirkuk to operate under South Korean control.

South Korean said the US proposal does not jibe with South Korea's intention to "keep its own independent operational command system and conduct peaceful reconstruction."

The move comes as other allies in the Iraq coalition reconsider their contributions.

Spain's new government made its pullout threat shortly after winning elections Sunday, three days after bombings in Madrid ¡ª possibly by al-Qaida-linked terrorists retaliating for Spain's participation in the U.S.-led effort in Iraq.

On Thursday, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said his country was "misled" about whether Saddam Hussein's regime had weapons of mass destruction and also was considering an early troop pullout.

A US Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the United States values "South Korea's contribution in fighting terrorism as we value the contributions of the more than 90 countries that have joined the coalition in fighting terrorism.

"It is up to each country to decide what type, duration and scope of support it may provide the coalition," the official said.

Staunch U.S. allies Australia and the Philippines said Friday that the coalition should not abandon Iraq in the face of possible terror attacks.

"Iraq is now on the cusp of a positive new chapter in its history," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said. "Now is not the time for the international community to succumb to terrorist threats and to abandon the Iraqi people."

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo rejected calls by some opposition politicians in her country to withdraw its 96-member contingent from Iraq and distance her country from the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

"What the opposition is suggesting is that we just silently cower in fear and hope the terrorists won't strike at us," Arroyo said in a statement. "This will not work. Terrorists are bullies and the more you cower, the more they will hit you.

South Korean Prime Minister Goh Kun, acting president after the National Assembly impeached President Roh Moo-hyun last Friday, assumed duty over the weekend promising to follow through on the Iraq mission.

But his government has warned that the country must prepare for possible terrorist attacks as its plans to send troops. Since the Spain bombings, Seoul has stepped up security at airports and elsewhere.

"We plan to maintain close consultations with the United States and select an area where we can effectively conduct our mission of peaceful reconstruction under a more stabilized condition, and decide on the timetable for the dispatch," the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency, citing an unnamed ministry official, said the dispatch would be put off until June and that the military was considering sites in central or southern Iraq where things are more stable.

One ministry source told Yonhap a new strong candidate site is Najaf in southern Iraq, where the Spanish troops are currently stationed. A South Korean survey team, led by Lt. Gen. Kim Jang-su, was to return later Friday after a weeklong visit to Iraq, possibly with suggestions on a new site, Yonhap said.

Kim had met with U.S. military leaders in Baghdad earlier this week and agreed on the changes regarding Kirkuk, Yonhap said.

Earlier this year, the South Korean parliament approved the dispatch of 3,600 troops ¡ª in a mission code named "Zaytun," or olive in Arabic ¡ª to help with Iraqi reconstruction. The public was split over the decision, but the dispatch won the backing of all major political parties.

The troops, to include special forces and marines, were to head to the northern Iraqi oil town of Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, and take control of reconstruction and security needs in the area.

About 460 South Korean medics and military engineers have been in southern Iraqi town of Nasiriyah for almost a year, and will come home when the new dispatch is sent.

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