- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea, March 28 (UPI) — A controversy over President Roh Moo-hyun's pledge to support the U.S.-led war against Iraq was widening in South Korea Friday as the country's parliament deferred again a vote on a government plan to send troops to the Arab nation.

The single-chamber legislature was scheduled Friday afternoon to vote on the bill authorizing the dispatch of 700 military engineers and medical staff, but it postponed the vote after some 70 lawmakers from ruling and opposition parties presented a petition to reject the proposal. In a news conference, the opposing lawmakers urged Roh's government to scrap the troop dispatch plan, describing the war in Iraq as "unauthorized one-sided armed aggression."

"The government should not make a hasty decision on the troop dispatch at a time of mounting anti-war protests in the world and growing signs that the war in Iraq would drag out for a longer period," they said in a joint statement.

"Sending troops to the Iraq war is unjustifiable," said Rep. Kim Keun-tae from the ruling party who has led the anti-war lawmakers' group. "If we sent our troops to this unjustifiable war, what could we say the next time the United States turns its sword against North Korea?" Kim asked, while speaking to United Press International.

The lawmakers' statement came amid mounting anti-war protests in the country. Scuffles erupted Friday as thousands of activists rallied outside the National Assembly complex and the U.S. Embassy building in central Seoul to protest against the troop dispatch plan. Some protesters climbed atop a police bus and chanted: "Stop war!" and "We oppose troops dispatch!"

With parliamentary elections just about a year away, some civic and labor groups threatened to stage a "no-vote" campaign against those lawmakers who vote for the motion.

Near the anti-war protest in front of the parliamentary building, some 1,000 Korean War veterans and pro-U.S. activists staged a rally, calling for a speedy dispatch of troops to the Persian Gulf.

With the growing anti-war protests, Roh is facing the biggest challenge of his presidency since taking office a month ago.

Roh, who pledged South Korea's support for the U.S. military campaign against Iraq as "inevitable measure," has urged lawmakers and the public to support the bill, saying it is in the country's strategic interest. His aides said under the "strategic thinking" Roh pledged to support Bush's line on Iraq, in a bid to win Washington's support for his soft-line approach toward North Korea in return. They said Roh would use his parliamentary speech scheduled for April 2 to call for people's support for the troop dispatch plan.

But anti-war lawmakers said South Korea's participation in the war in Iraq would hinder a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue.

"We should call for peace in Iraq so that we can call for a peaceful approach toward North Korea," Kim Young-hwan, a ruling lawmaker, told UPI.

Running counter to Roh's bid, the government-run National Human Rights Commission also issued a statement opposing the U.S.-led war on Iraq and a plan to dispatch troops.

"We oppose the war on Iraq because it threatens the lives and safety of the Iraqi people," said the statement.

Lawmakers will gather again to vote on the motion, but it remains unclear whether it could be endorsed because an increasing number of lawmakers are opposed to the troop dispatch.

Amid the controversy, Washington has asked South Korea to send additional staff, including those who can control Iraqi prisoners after war, defense officials said.

"The government is ruling out dispatching additional troops to Iraq for now," said a ministry official who requested anonymity.

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