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South Korean Military Contributes to Iraq Coalition in Safe Kurdish Region

The South Korean military has deployed over 1,000 troops in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Though they are part of the multinational force, the soldiers do not patrol the streets or take part in combat operations. Instead, the South Koreans teach local Iraqis new skills, from repairing cars to baking cakes. VOA's Brian Padden recently visited the South Korean base known as Camp Zaytun and files this report.

Juhan Habid is training to be one of the first female commercial truck drivers in Iraq. "I would like to be the first in this job and let others follow me. Why should every job be for men?"

Habid is one of more than 1500 students who have taken vocational training at the South Korean military base in northern Iraq. The economy in the relatively safe Kurdish region is thriving and the demand for skilled labor is great.

South Korean soldiers built a $1.4 million vocational training center to give the local people the skills they need to reconstruct their country. Students accepted into the program receive a $100 monthly stipend and most find jobs in their field. Classes range from operating construction machinery, to repairing engines, to baking cakes.

Hawzeen Mohammed, who teaches cake decoration, says there are lots of opportunities for people today. "It may be difficult to open a bakery but we can get jobs catering for events and parties."

Lt. Colonel Kim Chang Ho, the South Korean military commander here, says there is also a military motive in providing vocational training. “One of the biggest reasons why people join the militias or insurgencies is because of illiteracy and they cannot earn their own livelihood. We believe that by providing them the means to earn their own livelihood and earn a certain standard of life, we can deter them from joining the militia or the insurgency."

Officials with the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq point to this project as both a sign of progress on the ground and proof the multi-national war effort is effective. But anti-war critics say South Korea's presence in the relative safety of the Kurdish region proves the coalition is more a political facade than military alliance.

Phyllis Bennis of the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, DC says of the Koreans, "They told the Pentagon that they don't want their people in combat and in harm's way. They want them doing something safe. These people are not part of the coalition in a functional way. "

Bennis objects to using the limited military presence of countries like South Korea's to justify continued military operations. But she does say the vocational training program is commendable.