Saturday, December 29, 2007

SKorean MPs vote to extend Iraq troop deployment

SEOUL (AFP) — South Korea's parliament voted Friday to keep troops in Iraq for one more year, a move aimed at cementing the alliance with the United States in the face of North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

The MPs endorsed a government proposal to extend the contingent's stay until December 2008 but to halve the size of the force to about 650, a spokesman for the National Assembly said.

The force reduction has already taken place, with about 600 troops returning home over the past few weeks. The remaining 650 will stay for one more year, the defence ministry said.

President Roh Moo-Hyun had called in October for the troops to continue their reconstruction and medical mission for another year.

"Under the situation where North Korea's nuclear issue could develop in an unpredictable way, we judge that the South Korea-US alliance, more than anything else, should be maintained," he said at the time.

South Korea and the US are involved in six-nation negotiations seeking North Korea's denuclearisation in exchange for aid and diplomatic benefits.

Roh at the time also cited potential business opportunities in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the Zaytun (olive) force is stationed.

President-elect Lee Myung-Bak backed the continued deployment, which was subject to parliamentary approval. Friday's motion was passed 146-104.

The extension was South Korea's fourth since 3,000 troops were deployed with a one-year mandate in 2004 at the request of the US government.

Calls for a pullout grew after a South Korean worker was kidnapped and murdered in 2004 by Iraqi insurgents who demanded the Korean soldiers leave. The unit itself has suffered no battle casualties.

"In the international community, you don't give today and take back tomorrow," MP Song Young-Sun of Lee's conservative opposition Grand National Party told parliament.

"Even though there are no economic gains right now, a country doesn't build its international relationship in one day. This is for sure an investment."

Opponents said the US-led "war on terror" lacks legitimacy due to the escalating civil war in Iraq and the failure to link the toppled Saddam Hussein regime to Al-Qaeda, Yonhap news agency reported.

"They cite the Korea-US alliance as the main reason for the deployment, but other allies are withdrawing their troops -- take Italy, Sweden, Norway, Portugal and even Britain and Japan," said legislator Im Jong-Seok of the liberal pro-government United New Democratic Party.

South Korea has so far spent 636.7 billion won (680 million dollars) for its four-year deployment to Iraq and needs 44.6 billion more for the next year.

It withdrew the last of its troops from Afghanistan this month despite a US request for the army engineers and medics to stay on.

Roh's office has said this will be the final extension for the Iraq force. But Lee, who takes office in February, has not ruled out a longer stay.



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