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South Korea Approves Extension of Reduced Iraq Deployment


South Korean lawmakers have voted to extend their country's military presence in Iraq. The controversial deployment will remain until another vote is held a year from now, under a government plan that reduces personnel by half. VOA Seoul correspondent Kurt Achin has more.

The vote to extend South Korea's participation in Iraq stabilization efforts passed by 42 votes in South Korea's 299 seat parliament Friday. Six lawmakers abstained, and 42 did not show up for the vote.

The passage means about 650 South Korean military personnel will remain for another year in a non-combat, humanitarian reconstruction role in Iraq's relatively stable, predominantly Kurdish north. That is about half of last year's troop level, and far fewer than Seoul's 2004 deployment of more than three thousand forces to the region.

The South Korean deployment, known as "Zaytun," meaning "olive branch" in Arabic, was supposed to withdraw completely by the end of this year.

However, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun proposed the extension and reduction in October, arguing the deployment is necessary to support Seoul's alliance with the United States. Washington maintains about 28,000 troops here to deter an invasion from rival North Korea. The U.S. is also a close partner with the South in seeking an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons.

South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon says South Korea has good reason to remain in Iraq.

He says stabilization in the Middle East is directly related to the national security of South Korea, and that Washington and Seoul share a common interest there.

Still, South Korean public opinion has always been divided about the Iraq deployment. Most of President Roh's own liberal political allies argue the U.S.-led toppling of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was a war of choice that does not directly concern South Korea. Many ordinary South Koreans are sympathetic to that view.

Other South Koreans see their country's involvement in Iraq as a key to potential economic opportunity for Korean companies to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure. Experts say that view is likely to be embraced by president-elect Lee Myung-bak, a former construction industry chief who is also widely expected to pursue better relations between South Korea and the United States.