WASHINGTON – In a sign of the Iraq war's increasing strain on the U.S. Army, the Pentagon is considering an extraordinary shift of troops to Iraq from their garrisons in South Korea (search), where they have stood guard for decades against a feared invasion by forces of communist North Korea (search), official say.
The move reflects not only the Army's difficulty in finding enough soldiers for the next rotation of forces into Iraq later this year but also Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's (search) push for greater flexibility in deploying troops based anywhere in the world, including the Korean peninsula.
The U.S. commitment to defending South Korea is the most enduring of its kind, after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact that threatened Europe until it dissolved in 1991. U.S. forces saved South Korea after the North invaded without warning in June 1950.
South Korean officials offered the first word Sunday that the United States wanted to move some of the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed there to Iraq, and Pentagon officials confirmed that talks were under way.
The issue is politically sensitive because of the concern about a potential North Korean attack across the Demilitarized Zone (search) that has separated the North and South since the Korean War ended in a truce in July 1953. U.S. and South Korean forces remain on a war footing because the truce has never been converted to a peace treaty, and the two Koreas are technically still at war.
"The U.S. government has told us that it needs to select some U.S. troops in South Korea and send them to Iraq to cope with the worsening situation in Iraq," said Kim Sook, head of the South Korean Foreign Ministry's North American Bureau.
Tapping into the U.S. force on the Korean peninsula, the Cold War's last remaining flash point, would be a historic move by the Pentagon. It underscores the degree to which the military is stretched to provide enough forces for Iraq while also meeting its other commitments.
The Pentagon had planned to reduce the number of troops in Iraq to about 115,000 this spring, but an increasingly bloody insurgency forced a change in plans. The Pentagon announced this month that it now plans to keep about 135,000 troops in Iraq for at least the next year and a half.
Kim said the two allies are working out details, including the size and timing of the redeployment of U.S. troops from South Korea. The forces have traditionally served as a deterrent against North Korea's 1.1-million-member military, which is the world's fifth largest although severely hampered in its equipping and training by the communist nation's chronic economic problems.
In Washington, a senior defense official confirmed that the Pentagon is in discussions with the South Korean government about using some Korea-based U.S. forces in Iraq. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the shift was not imminent but would be part of the next rotation of American troops in Iraq, which is scheduled to begin this summer. He offered no other details.
South Korea's mass-circulation JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, quoting unnamed government sources, reported that a brigade of 4,000 U.S. troops belonging to the 2nd Infantry Division will move to Iraq "within several weeks."
The division, based at Camp Red Cloud, is deployed along the tense border with North Korea, the world's most heavily armed. It has a formidable array of combat power, including two combat maneuver brigades, an aviation brigade, a combat engineer brigade, an air defense artillery regiment and a military police company. It has been stationed in South Korea since 1965.
The division's 3rd Brigade, known as the Arrowhead Brigade, is based at Fort Lewis, Wash., as a reserve force for Korea. That brigade, which was the first in the Army to transition from tanks to the new Stryker wheeled vehicle, has been operating in northern Iraq since late last fall.
Kim, the South Korean official, said it was too early to speculate on whether the troops will return to South Korea after their Iraq mission. The Bush administration wants to reduce the number of troops stationed permanently in South Korea, but no decisions have been made.
South Korea has feared that a cut in U.S. military presence might weaken the two allies' combined defense readiness against North Korea amid tension over the communist state's nuclear weapons program.
At the administration's urging, South Korea has agreed to send more than 3,000 of its troops to Iraq to help stabilize and rebuild the country. They are expected to arrive this summer.