SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea (search) will send nearly 3,600 troops to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, the military said Friday, two weeks after Seoul rattled allies by scrubbing plans for a mission to the northern town of Kirkuk (search).
South Korea canceled the Kirkuk deployment, citing concerns that the mission, and potentially offensive operations in the area, would conflict with the troops' parliamentary mandate for peacekeeping and reconstruction.
For a new site for South Korean troop deployment, the U.S. and South Korean militaries have agreed to choose between Sulaimaniyah and Irbil in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq (search), said the Defense Ministry in a statement. Twin homicide bombers killed 109 people in two Kurdish party offices in Irbil in February.
"The two sides have agreed to maintain close consultations and make their final selection as soon as possible, after South Korea conducts onsite studies in the region," said the ministry's brief statement.
The statement did not clarify when South Korea will dispatch its troops.
A U.S. defense official speaking on condition of anonymity said the South Korean contingent in Iraq will operate autonomously in either the Irbil or the Sulaymaniyah area of northern Iraq -- not as part of the U.S. contingent that is operating elsewhere in northern Iraq. The South Korean forces will, however, report to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez (search), the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
The South Koreans told Pentagon officials that they intend to get a site survey team to northern Iraq quickly, although the deployment will probably not happen until June, the official said.
If the South Koreans decide to put their troops in Sulaymaniyah province, which is northeast of Kirkuk and borders Iran, they will not take responsibility for the border area, he said.
The 3,600-troop mission will make South Korea the biggest coalition partner in Iraq after the United States and Britain.
About 460 South Korean medics and military engineers have been in the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriyah for almost a year, and will come home following the new deployment.
The new troops, to include special forces and marines, were to take complete control of relief and security needs in the region around Kirkuk. But the plans were scrapped because the U.S. military wanted to keep a contingent in the area under South Korean command that would continue raids and other offensive missions.
South Korea balked, saying that would be contrary to a parliamentary mandate restricting the troops to peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts.
The troop dispatch was initially unpopular with the South Korean public. But the government says sending troops will help win Washington's backing for a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear weapons crisis.
South Korea's 650,000-member military is backed by about 37,000 U.S. troops in facing off against North Korea's 1.1 million-strong army -- the world's fifth largest.
The United States and South Korea have remained close military allies since U.S. troops helped defend South Korea against communist invaders during the 1950-53 Korean War. South Korean troops fought alongside American troops in the Vietnam War.