SEOUL — The commander of U.S. soldiers leaving here for Iraq says they are “ready to fight” insurgents and terrorists despite their initial training for a far different mission in a far different place.
The 3,600 soldiers will leave bases in South Korea, within range of 12,000 North Korean artillery pieces a few miles north of the tense border, and head for the harsh heat and deadly roadside and suicide bombs in and around Baghdad.
His troops are “confident and very sober” about going into combat in a place where 909 U.S. troops had died as of Thursday, Army Maj. Gen. John C. Wood, commander of the 2nd Infantry Division, said in an interview with The Washington Times.
“This is not false bravado,” Gen. Wood said. “They know they’re ready to fight. They were ready to fight [North Korea] and are trained and ready to fight the next [foe].”
Gen. Wood’s 2nd Infantry is in charge of what the Army calls the 2nd Combat Team, most of the 2nd Brigade, which is bound for Iraq. Soldiers of the 2nd Brigade are deploying to another theater of conflict for the first time since U.S. forces arrived in 1950 to fight on the Korean Peninsula with U.N. forces.
“Although this was an unexpected call, it’s certainly understandable, given the readiness of this force,” said Gen Wood, who himself is not deploying to Iraq.
The two-star general said the team, trained and equipped for “combat against the North Koreans,” was retrained and equipped over the past two months to adjust to fighting a war either on city streets or desert battlefields in Iraq.
“The nature of the threat is different,” Gen. Wood said.
Instead of facing the North Korean military’s traditional tanks, airplanes and missiles, the unit in Iraq will join an unconventional fight against shadowy insurgents who routinely kill women and children and who kidnap and behead foreign civilians.
To prepare, the brigade brought in 50 Arabic speakers who schooled the soldiers on Arab culture and customs. They also played the role of the radical Islamist terrorists and former elements of Saddam Hussein’s regime who are attacking U.S., Iraqi and allied forces.
The team’s return to South Korea after the yearlong deployment has not been decided, Gen. Wood said.
“It’s not yet clear what the final disposition of that force is,” he said. “Frankly, I hope they come back.”
Pentagon officials, however, said the brigade will not return, because it is part of a reduction of some 12,500 in the overall U.S. force of 37,000 troops in South Korea, a cut of about one-third by December 2005.
U.S. officials stressed the government’s commitment to the defense of South Korea even as they announced the plan to reduce the American troop presence.
The reduction had been rumored for months, but the magnitude surprised many observers. The Pentagon confirmed the number last month after South Korean officials said they had received the U.S. proposal in Seoul.
At that time, military officials said the proposal was for redeploying troops stationed in South Korea this year and next. Other U.S. troops, stationed in downtown Seoul and near the demilitarized zone, will be redeployed to other parts of the country.
“We’re about ready to move the major formations here in August, put them on planes and send them to the arrival stations and onward into their final locations,” Gen. Wood said.
Most of the challenges connected with moving the troops have been solved in South Korea, he said.
“I think, obviously, the problem there will be acclimatizing soldiers to the intense heat,” Gen. Wood said.
A heat wave is baking South Korea, with temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s, but the weather in Iraq is much hotter as summer temperatures average 120 degrees.
Gen. Wood said the next worry is how his soldiers will make the adjustment from training conditions to “the first real fight” with the enemy in Iraq.
Morale is high, he stressed, despite the fact that most of these 3,600 troops expected to spend a year in South Korea before returning to bases in the United States. Now the soldiers are looking at spending a full year in Iraq.
This redeployment is among the moves the Pentagon is making to replenish the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Another 10,000 are in Afghanistan. The Army is tapping all its divisions to rotate in and out of those two theaters on 12-month deployments.
Aside from the thousands of troops that have had tours of duty in Iraq extended, the Defense Department called up 5,600 in the Individual Ready Reserve, veterans who have service obligations, and added 5,000 Marines to the 25,000 already in Iraq.
Among others reassigned to Iraq are troops with the 1st Battalion of the 509th Parachute Infantry at Fort Polk, La., and the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment of Fort Irwin, Calif.
Pentagon officials have said they are crafting back-up plans to send a possible 25,000 more troops to the region.
The Army is supplying the troops departing South Korea with new body armor, more sniper rifles and other “desert-specific” gear.
The brigade is taking along only one of its three batteries of artillery — about six to eight guns — because the rest were not considered needed. Artillerymen have been retrained as infantrymen because the bulk of their duties in Iraq involve conducting patrols.