- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2004

SEOUL — The U.S. government yesterday dismissed as a “logistical issue” the unexpected postponement of a planned deployment of South Korea troops to bolster the U.S.-led peacekeeping in Iraq.

Officials in Seoul announced early yesterday that the dispatch of South Korean troops to the restive northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk had been scrubbed over concerns that U.S. troops also stationed in the city would be carrying out offensive operations. The 3,600 South Korean troops would constitute the third-largest foreign contingent in Iraq after American and British forces.

The official Yonhap news agency, citing Defense Ministry officials, said the Kirkuk posting would go against the peacekeeping mandate of the South Korean participation, and the Seoul government fears it could make the country a target for terrorists.

But State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli told reporters in Washington that the Bush administration remained confident that the South Korean force will participate in the Iraq mission.

“This is a logistical issue,” he said, adding that talks are still under way with South Korea on the mission.

“These discussions are focused on determining what is the best location, given the Korean troops’ capabilities,” he added.

There are already some 460 Korean soldiers in Iraq, based in Nasiriyah in the south, conducting humanitarian and reconstruction operations.

Kirkuk, about 180 miles north of Baghdad, is the flash point of violence involving Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.

The South Korean contingent, which was scheduled to begin deployment in the city next month, is not expected to arrive before June, Yonhap said. It is likely to be deployed at a safer location — most likely at Najaf in the south, where Spanish troops operate now.

Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, following last week’s train bombings in Madrid that killed 202 persons, has promised to pull out the 1,300-odd Spanish troops by June 30. The attacks are believed to be retaliation by al Qaeda-linked terror groups for Spain’s participation in the Iraq war.

The Associated Press quoted South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon as saying that Seoul’s decision was “tactical and technical” and unrelated to the Spain bombings. “We are going to continue to dispatch our troops to Iraq as was already committed,” he said.

The troop dispatch, approved by the South Korean parliament in February, had been unpopular with the liberal supporters of President Roh Moo-hyun, but did have the support of the conservative Grand National Party — the main opposition party that impeached Mr. Roh last Friday. The deployment is expected to become a campaign issue in the April 15 parliamentary elections.

Following the Madrid bombings, Prime Minister Goh Kun, who is acting as president, called anti-terrorism security to be intensified. “Countries which have troops stationed in Iraq have become main targets for terrorist attacks,” Mr. Goh’s spokesman said Wednesday.

Although South Korea shares borders only with North Korea and maintains tight immigration controls, there are several hundred thousand migrant workers in Korean factories, many from Muslim countries. The 37,000 American troops in South Korea are another potential target.

Meanwhile, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo rejected calls by opposition lawmakers to withdraw the country’s 96-member contingent from Iraq.

Japan was likewise standing by its plan to deploy about 1,000 soldiers to assist with rebuilding in Iraq, Tokyo’s largest overseas military dispatch since World War II.

David R. Sands contributed to this report in Washington.

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