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South Korea Signals Possible 2007 Iraq Withdrawal


South Korean officials are indicating that Seoul may end its military role in Iraq by the end of 2007. A bill to extend South Korea's Iraq deployment through next year contains language the country's ruling party says amounts to a promise of a withdrawal. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, the news coincides with emerging details of a bipartisan U.S. report recommending Washington reduce its role in Iraq.

South Korea's Defense Ministry implied Thursday the country's role in Iraq would soon come to an end, as officials made public a bill to be submitted next week to the parliament.

In 2004, South Korea sent 3600 non-combat troops to the relatively peaceful, predominantly Kurdish region of Irbil in northern Iraq. The legislation renews the deployment through next year, while cutting troop levels by half, to about 1300 soldiers.

Kim Chang-ho, a government spokesman, says a cabinet meeting this week led to a key change in the bill's text.

He says the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun agreed to revise the bill to say that South Korea "will successfully complete the mission next year."

Officials in Mr. Roh's Uri party say that is a timetable for a South Korean withdrawal by the end of 2007, even though a withdrawal is not explicitly mentioned in the bill.

South Korea's military contribution to the U.S.-led Iraq stabilization effort has met with strong opposition here. President Roh defied his party in ordering the deployment to bolster Seoul's alliance with the United States, which has experienced strains over issues such as North Korea's nuclear weapons.

Now that both Mr. Roh and his party are suffering from plummeting approval ratings, mainly over economic issues, Uri officials are increasing pressure for a complete Iraq withdrawal.

Tensions between Mr. Roh and his party have risen in recent days, with Mr. Roh even suggesting this week he may split from the party.

International relations Professor Lee Ki-taek, of Seoul's Yonsei University, says he thinks a full South Korean withdrawal next year is unlikely.

He says part of the South Korean mission in Iraq was democratization - a mission Professor Lee says will not be completed by next December.

South Korea's talk of a withdrawal coincides with emerging details of a report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in Washington. The report is considered to be a blueprint for possible U.S. strategy changes in Iraq.

U.S. media reports say the group will recommend that Washington shift its role in Iraq from "combat" to "support." It also reportedly recommends the U.S. Iraq deployment not remain open-ended. The report is scheduled to be formally released next week.

Despite the news reports about the study group, President Bush said Thursday that U.S. troops would stay in Iraq as long as necessary to end the violence, and as long as the Iraqi government wants them. He made the comments after meeting with Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.