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Korea torn over troop withdrawals

A recommendation yesterday by a high-level U.S. commission that President George W. Bush should consider beginning the withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq is expected to trigger heated debate here over the future of Korean troops in the war-torn country.

"It is expected that President Bush won`t totally ignore the calls, so the U.S. government will make some adjustment on its Iraq policy. This will stir the current controversy here in Seoul surrounding Korean troop bills," In Nam-sik, professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security told The Korea Herald.

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group yesterday said in preparation for the U.S. troop pullout, the Bush administration should step up efforts to train, equip and advise Iraqi forces. "Military priorities must change. We should seek to complete the training and equipping mission by the end of the first quarter of 2008," their report said.

▲A new detachment of Korean Zaytun soldiers raise their fists on Wednesday during a send-off ceremony at a military base in the southern city of Gwangju before leaving for Iraq. However, professor In said, "A full-scale troop withdrawal wouldn`t be a viable option to the United States. Washington will work on schedules for the troop pullout as well as ways to enhance Iraqis` security enforcement."

The recommendations came at a critical time when Korea is split by an internal debate on its Iraq troop policy. "The timely report will have some influence on the rifts among Korean lawmakers over when the Zaytun troops in Iraq should be brought home," he added.

Korea maintains a 2,300-strong force named Zaytun, meaning olive in Arabic, in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil. The Zaytun Division, deployed since 2004 at the request of the United States, is the third largest foreign contingent in the embattled country after the United States and Britain. The unit is helping the Kurdish people rebuild their autonomous region which is now seeking independence from Iraq.

"Despite the report, the United States isn`t expected make a rapid retreat from Iraq. Given that, we should take into account that Korea`s troop deployment is interlinked with the ongoing U.S. policies toward the Korean Peninsula," Sheen Seong-ho, security professor at Seoul National University told The Korea Herald, hinting that the mounting calls for Zatyun`s immediate withdrawal could lose force.

The government is now seeking parliamentary approval for a draft motion aimed at extending the deployment for another year, while reducing the size of the contingent from 2,300 to 1,200.

The government bill proposes to map out a plan next year for the phased withdrawal of Korean troops as a compromise to ameliorate increased domestic calls for an immediate withdrawal. But the bill offers no concrete timeframe.

The Defense Ministry also presented another bill to extend the deployment of the 200-strong contingent in Afghanistan with a pledge to withdraw all the troops by the end of next year.

On Wednesday, however, the National Assembly`s defense committee withheld deliberation of the draft bills aimed at extending deployment of Korean troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The decision came amid rifts among legislators over whether and when the troops should be brought home.

"Legislators mostly agreed on the mission extension, but differed over the withdrawal agenda," an informed government source said.

During Wednesday`s session, a ruling party lawmaker submitted a revised bill to the committee, which calls for terminating the mandate of the Korean contingent in Iraq "within 2007."

The ruling party last week announced its intention to push for a revision of the government bill into one that obliges Korea to end the Iraqi mission by the end of next year, protesting the government`s refusal to accept Uri calls for an immediate withdrawal plan.

The party believes Korea needs to prepare for a withdrawal from the region along with moves by other U.S. allies which are planning early departures from the region. Uri members note Japan withdrew its troops earlier this year, and Italy has recently announced a pullout plan.

In the face of strong Uri pressure, the Defense Ministry compromised to follow whatsoever decisions are made by the National Assembly.

The Assembly`s defense committee plans to deliberate both troop bills next week after additional discussion.

Meanwhile, the committee members appear to reject a resolution bill by progressive lawmakers, demanding the immediate pullout of the troops. Progressives have persistently urged the government "not to contribute to the unjustifiable and illegal U.S.-led invasions" in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their resolution was criticized Wednesday as underestimating the importance of Korea`s role in the international community and its alliance with the United States.

Korean conservatives and policymakers see the dispatch of the Zaytun unit as a symbolic asset to glue together Korea-U.S. military ties.

"The extended Zaytun deployment will be beneficial to our strategies on other foreign issues at stake, including the Korea-U.S. alliance, North Korea`s nuclear program, and our relationship with Middle Eastern countries," said Kim Sung-han, professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

The group is concerned that a Korean troop withdrawal could be detrimental to the relationship between Korea and the United States, given recent strains.

Since the inauguration of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, there have been strains on the relationship, leading some to even consider it may face a complete breakdown because of Roh`s inclination toward self reliance.

Roh, armed with a strong nationalistic mindset, has sought independence for its national defense and North Korean policy, reducing what progressive Koreans call "excessive intervention" in Korean affairs by foreign powers.

Military policymakers here now appear to be mindful of what response could come from Washington regarding Seoul`s troop withdrawal plans.

They claim a troop withdrawal could be a signal of Korea`s retreat from its advocacy of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

"We need to wait and see what decision Washington would arrive at with regard to its Iraq strategies," another source said, requesting anonymity.

However, pragmatists say with the troop deployment Korea has succeeded only in securing its basic alliance relationship with the United States, but has failed to achieve realistic and commercial interests.

The Seoul government, however, has claimed the troop deployment to Iraq will be another cornerstone to keep the alliance strong. It also said the deployment paves the way for the entry of Korean companies to Iraq.

However, the government has banned Korean companies and people from entering Iraq after the murder of kidnapped Korean Kim Sun-il in June 2004. Kim`s death disclosed the government`s inability to protect its nationals abroad.

"What real interests has Korea garnered with the troop deployment?" asked Lee Hee-soo, a Middle East expert and professor at Hanyang University.

The group says the northern Kurdish region where Korean troops are stationed, is currently being swept by a construction boom and other infrastructure projects, but no Korean companies are being allowed to enjoy the commercial opportunities

"Under security provided by the presence of Korean Zaytun troops, other foreigners are picking up valuable commercial projects and opportunities," Lee said.

Construction projects have gone to companies from other countries who didn`t even contribute troops for the security of the region, critics say. A project for building up telecommunications infrastructure in the region was taken by Chinese companies, they say.

Meanwhile, others point out another important consideration which is related to the complex political status in the region.

They note the Kurdish people, for whom Korean troops serve, is one of the three major sectarian groups in Iraq, and they are now believed to be seeking an independent Kurdish country. The Kurds had been oppressed under the autocratic regime of Saddam Hussein, and were the weakest minority in the Iraqi political infrastructure.

With the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I the Kurdish were blocked from building their own nation state, facing a personal tragedy while raising threats to regional security. Countries which are host to sizeable Kurdish communities have frequently oppressed Kurdish political movements, fearing a breakup of their countries.

Strategists believe the Kurdish people hoping to forge an alliance with communities scattered across Iran, Syria and Turkey, and aim to create an independent Kurdish nation state.

Focusing on this point, strategists question if Korea`s aid to the Kurdish people will promote our interest to Iraq as a whole.

Zaytun commanders have said "we`re serving the Kurdish people under a belief that they are part of Iraq. We believe our efforts will contribute to a favorable relationship between Korea and Iraq."

However, strategic experts argue that Korea`s deployment to the Kurdish region of Irbil could have a negative impact on Korea`s relation-building with neighboring Middle Eastern countries.

They also worry about a possibility that the United States would retreat to the northern Kurdish region as sectarian violence in the embattle country deepens.

Speculation is growing that U.S. forces could move into Kirkuk near Irbil where the Korean Zaytun unit is located if they fail to stabilize the central region including Baghdad. But they say, the violence could follow the U.S. forces.

"The United States could abandon the highly dangerous areas and retreat to the northern Iraqi region where it is comparatively stable and oil-abundant," In said. "If the U.S. retreat becomes fact, Korea could also be involved in the spiraling sectarian conflict and become a target for Islamic anger because of its status as a close U.S. ally."

By Jin Dae-woong ( 2006.12.08



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