South Korea's Cabinet on Monday formalized a proposal to withdraw one-third of the country's troops from Iraq, but to also extend the overall deployment by 12 months, the Defense Ministry said. On Friday, the ministry announced it planned to bring home some 1,000 troops. About 3,200 South Korean troops are stationed in northern Iraq to help rehabilitate the country, making Seoul the second-largest U.S. coalition partner after Britain.
The announcement came as a blow to U.S. President George W. Bush who just a day earlier had met with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and thanked him for his contribution of forces.
Pentagon officials also expressed surprise, saying South Korea had not notified them of any plan to change their troop presence in Iraq. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said South Korea had assured Bush that, like the United States, it would only reduce troop levels after significant progress had been made on the political and security fronts in Iraq.
In a meeting presided over by Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan, the Cabinet formed a formal proposal Monday to reduce the number of South Korean troops in Iraq, and to extend the deployment by one year, the Defense Ministry said.
The ministry declined to offer further specifics, but South Korea's Yonhap news agency said the troops will be withdrawn in the first half of 2006. Roh must endorse the plan Tuesday before it can be introduced to the National Assembly on Wednesday, Yonhap said. It was unclear when the parliament would act on the proposal. South Korea's decision to dispatch troops to Iraq proved an unpopular move at home where activists launched protests to voice their disapproval.
The South Korean contingent makes up only a fraction of the 180,000-strong coalition force in Iraq, but U.S. officials have attached great political significance to all allied contributions. A total of 27 countries have sent troops to Iraq, rpeorts the AP. I.L.