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S. Korea Cancels Plans to Send Troops to Kirkuk - 2004-03-19

South Korea has canceled plans to send troops to the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, citing security concerns. South Korea's defense ministry says it intends to send its troops to a safer location.

South Korea has canceled its planned troop deployment to the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk in Northern Iraq.

The defense ministry in Seoul says it will not send troops there because security is deteriorating in an area that is home to Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomen, all competing for control. South Korean defense officials say they are working with Washington to find a more suitable location.

Chun In-young, a professor of politics at Seoul National University, says most South Koreans support the government's decision.

"We understand that Kirkuk area is very complicated," he said. "We try to be out of politics, be more neutral and concentrate on our job rebuilding."

The move comes after Washington asked Seoul if U.S. combat troops could remain in Kirkuk with the non-combatant South Korean troops. But Seoul was unwilling to accept the proposal, because it ran counter to the dispatch approved by the South Korea parliament, which said that South Korean troops must have independent command of the area and would pursue peaceful reconstruction projects only.

The South Korean government agreed to dispatch more than 3,000 troops to Iraq in February - a decision opposed by many members of the public. The solders, mostly non-combatants, were to join some 400 South Korean medics and engineers already in Iraq.

Most of those slated for the scrapped deployment were also non-combat troops, which would have helped rehabilitate the war-torn nation.

Defense ministry officials have told South Korean media that the dispatch to another part of Iraq will be postponed until at least late June. Once the South Korean contingent arrives in Iraq, it will be the third largest there, after U.S. and British troops.

Seoul's decision to cancel the deployment does not appear to be related to a domestic political crisis in South Korea in which President Roh Moo-hyun was impeached last week.