Friday, November 18, 2005

In South Korea, Another Blow to Bush's Efforts in Iraq

Published on Friday, November 18, 2005 by the Los Angeles Times
Bush and Cheney are toast!
 
As the president meets with Roh for the APEC summit, White House plays down reports of ally's plan to bring a third of its troops home.
by Peter Wallsten and Barbara Demick
 
PUSAN, South Korea — After President Bush lauded South Korea's troop contribution to Iraq's reconstruction as a "gesture of friendship," White House officials sought to downplay reports today about that country's intention to draw down its forces.

Published reports quoted South Korean government sources as saying the country intended to reduce its contingent of about 3,600 troops by one-third. But a U.S. spokesman said Bush administration officials were "unaware of any such formal announcement."

The reports could prove particularly embarrassing for the U.S. president because they surfaced while he was in the country to take part in an annual gathering of Pacific Rim leaders at which cooperation on Iraq promised to be a major discussion point.

Bush stood beside South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Thursday and thanked him for his country's participation in the reconstruction, but there was no mention of a possible South Korean troop reduction.

"We're bound by our love of freedom," Bush said. "And those commitments by your government indicate how close we are in terms of promoting the values of freedom and democracy."

A White House spokesman, Frederick Jones, said today that the topic of a South Korean troop reduction had not come up during the leaders' private discussions.

"President Roh was very proud of the accomplishments of Korean forces," Jones said.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett later said the administration had received "guidance" that the South Korean government's official stance had not yet changed, and that the debate was continuing in the parliament.

"I think it's premature to say this is any indication of what's going one way or the other," Bartlett said.

There was no official comment from South Korea's Defense Ministry. But Defense Minister Yoon Kwang Ung told ruling party legislators in a closed session of the National Assembly that changed conditions in Iraq made the reduction of troops possible, the semiofficial Yonhap news agency said.

Members of the ruling Uri Party have in recent months called for a troop reduction, citing reports of similar moves by Britain, Australia and Japan.

The war in Iraq has been extremely unpopular in South Korea, and even advocates of the troop deployment here have maintained it was done only out of an obligation to a long military alliance with the United States.

Oh Young Shik, a spokesman for the ruling party, said that those South Korean troops brought home first would be doctors, nurses and construction workers.

Losing about 1,000 South Korean troops, which focus primarily on peacekeeping, would not be a setback from a military standpoint. But South Korea's contingent is the third-largest in the coalition, behind the United States and Britain.

And coming as Japan is also set to consider its own drawdown of troops and with Congress growing increasingly wary of U.S. policy in Iraq, the announcement was the latest in a series of setbacks for the Bush administration's effort to maintain support for the war.

This week, the Republican-led Senate rejected calls for a timetable of troop reductions but voted to require the administration to provide more detailed reports on Iraq.

The White House has stepped up its defense of Iraq policy, firing off a scathing statement Thursday accusing U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) of espousing views held by the "extreme liberal wing" of the Democratic Party because he called for U.S. troops to be withdrawn.

Bush kicked off his participation in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit by sitting down for the fifth time this year with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, another Iraq war critic.

The two were expected to discuss a proposed law in Russia that would force numerous nongovernmental organizations, including international heavyweights such as Human Rights Watch and the Ford Foundation, to face government examinations of their operations. Russian officials would ensure that the groups are not pursuing political activities funded by other countries.

Groups have warned that the law could force them to close their doors in Moscow, and the law underscores broader concerns on the part of the White House and human rights groups that Putin is rolling back post-Soviet democratic reforms.

The two leaders were also expected to discuss nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran. Russia is building a nuclear reactor in Iran, despite U.S. objections, and Putin has resisted calls by Bush to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council.

However, Moscow does support efforts to eliminate North Korea's nuclear arms programs and prevent Iran from acquiring atomic weapons.

Unlike at some of their past meetings, the two leaders did not take questions or offer details of their conversation.

"You going to say something to the press?" Bush asked as the two settled into their meeting in a hotel suite. Putin shook his head, and Bush said, "OK, me neither."

Wallsten reported from Pusan and Demick from Seoul.

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