[OUTLOOK]Troops in Iraq: Fight or leave

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[OUTLOOK]Troops in Iraq: Fight or leave

The National Assembly is likely to become unstuck this week and vote on whether to extend the deployment of Korea’s military forces in Iraq. The lawmakers will undoubtedly give their approval, but for the wrong reasons.
From the beginning, between 40 and 50 governing Uri Party assemblymen opposed President Roh Moo-hyun’s agreement to send the troops, believing Korea had no dog in the fight or real contribution to make to the American-led occupation of the country. The deeper support for planting the Taegeuki, or Korean flag, in volatile soil halfway around the world comes from the opposition and conservative Grand National Party, which self-styles itself as an unwavering backer of the U.S.-Korean alliance.
A parallel exists between Britain and Korea in how the two countries became involved.
When Prime Minister Tony Blair, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, chose to back the U.S. attack against Iraq, he faced a storm of anger from within his own party, and not just from Labour’s rank-and-file members, but also from senior party leaders. Foreshadowing what would happen in Korea, it was the British Conservative Party that lent Mr. Blair the moral support he needed to follow U.S. President George W. Bush into the fight.
President Roh Moo-hyun had a number of delicate considerations in the run-up to sending Korean troops to Iraq. He had gained office in a campaign widely viewed as fueled by anti-Americanism. On the other hand, Mr. Roh would say he was simply appealing to popular sentiment that Koreans would feel better off if they weren’t so dependent in many ways on the United States.
So backing the Americans in a war in which Korea had no evident stake was not easy for Mr. Roh. Yet, weightier concerns existed. U.S. military leadership in defending South Korea against North Korea remains crucial, and Washington’s cooperation in diplomatic and economic affairs could have become dicier if Mr. Roh had rebuffed the U.S. request for help. In other words, U.S. arm-twisting could have been brutal.
That generally describes the state of play in moving between 3,500 and 4,000 Korean soldiers to a camp set up outside Irbil, a Kurdish city in the generally peaceful north of Iraq.
But there’s also the rub. So far, the Korean troops have done nothing in Iraq except get there, and the Roh administration would no doubt like to keep it that way.
When Mr. Roh went to see the country’s young men and women near Irbil earlier this month, the photos showed fresh-faced kids. The visit came shortly after the devastating assault by U.S. Marines on Fallujah where the Americans took hundreds of fatalities. Photos from that scene showed grime and death.
In neatly pressed uniforms, the Korean troops looked like extras from central casting for an Army promotional film. Everybody was cheering.
So what was the cheering about? Nobody knows because the Korean press has all but abandoned its responsibility to report on what their countrymen are doing in Iraq. The Kurds, meanwhile, are wondering why the Koreans came in the first place.
This is pretty much in line with the situation of Japan’s troops in the south of the country.
Ostensibly in Iraq to do humanitarian work, Japanese and Korean troops are known to hardly ever leave their bases. Neither government wants to see anyone get hurt. If that happened, it would further sour public opinion back home. So this is window dressing by Korea and Japan to stay in the good graces of the Bush administration.
And that’s what is wrong about the coming approval to extend the deployment. Soldiers aren’t trained to build schools or staff medical clinics, even if they try. There’s plenty of work to do, like fighting. Korea either needs to contribute to winning the war or get out of the place.
In planning to take Fallujah, the United States asked the British to move some troops north from their chief base in Basra in the south and to provide more security in central Iraq. That seemed sensible.
Instead of simply doing public relations work by putting more of a multinational face on the coalition in Iraq, Korean troops wouldn’t have to go confront the Iraqi insurgency in the Sunni triangle. That’s not necessary, but they could hold down the nasty stuff going on in other parts of the country. Say in Mosul, where Korean missionaries were until recently actually trying to help people.
Kim Jeong-jin, a Korean, enlisted in the U.S. Army in April while he was studying in Hawaii. He joined because he wanted to become a U.S. citizen. In October, he was killed on patrol in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad. Last week, the United States made him an American.
Did he do any good? That’s not clear, but Mr. Kim honorably tried.

*The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Daily.


by Charles D. Sherman
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