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S. Korea Postpones Decision on Sending Troops to Iraq - 2003-03-25

South Korea's parliament is postponing a vote on a government plan to send non-combat troops to support the U.S. led war in Iraq. The decision was made as civic groups, students and celebrities held anti-war protests in Seoul.

South Korean lawmakers are deferring for one week a controversial vote on sending a non-combat support force to Iraq to help the U.S.-led military coalition.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is pledging support for the U.S.-led war effort and said last week that his nation would provide about 700 medical and engineering troops.

But the leaders of the country's two main political parties decided to postpone the vote on the Roh administration's plan as anti-war protests grow.

An alliance of activist groups, led by a powerful labor organization, formed a human chain in front of the National Assembly building, blocking legislators' entry. Students from 13 universities in Seoul joined the demonstrations. Protests also took place in front of the South Korean Defense Ministry.

Fights between riot police and some anti-war demonstrators erupted when dozens of students broke through police lines and tried to scale the walls of parliament.

A group of prominent actors and film directors held a news conference to express their opposition to the war.

Both ruling and opposition parties have pledged support for President Roh's proposal, which is expected to pass. However, some liberal lawmakers are cautioning that dispatching the troops would boost anti-American sentiment.

Thirty-seven thousand American troops are stationed in the South as a deterrent against possible aggression from North Korea. But the military alliance between Washington and Seoul has recently showed signs of strain, with many South Koreans saying the role of the U.S. troops needs to be reassessed.

Critics say Mr. Roh wants a U.S. guarantee for a peaceful ending to the current nuclear standoff with the North in return for Seoul's support for the war in Iraq. Since last October, when Washington says Pyongyang confirmed that it has an illegal nuclear weapons program underway, tensions have been escalating.

North Korea warned Tuesday that Washington may spark what it called a "second Iraqi crisis" with an attack on the Stalinist state. The United States has said repeatedly it has no plans to attack the North.