U.S. to shift 3,600 troops from S. Korea to Iraq

Army struggling to quell the growing insurgency

May 18, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon has decided to shift 3,600 soldiers from duty in South Korea to Iraq this summer, the most recent sign of how the Army is struggling to meet the level of troops needed to quell the rising insurgency in Iraq.

The troops will come from one of two U.S. combat brigades in South Korea, part of a 37,000- strong force positioned there to guard against invasion by the North.

Pentagon officials have discussed the idea of shifting troops out of South Korea and Europe with allies for more than a year. But this is the first time since the end of the Korean War that U.S. troops will have been pulled out of the Korean peninsula for another mission. North and South Korea, which have never signed a formal peace treaty, have remained technically at war since 1953.

President Bush told President Roh Moo Hyun by phone that the move is related to the transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government June 30 and that it in no way lessens the U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea, officials in Seoul said.

A statement issued by Roh's office said the South Korean leader "expressed understanding." The presidents also discussed South Korea's plan to send 3,600 of its troops to Iraq. The Pentagon is counting on such a move to make up for the loss of Spanish and other coalition troops.

Some active and retired Army officers said they fear that yesterday's decision will further damage efforts to recruit and retain soldiers. Recruitment numbers have fallen in both active and reserve ranks.

The troops to be shifted to Iraq are part of the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, which has long been deployed in South Korea as individual replacements on a one-year tour without their families. As a result, some troops will have been in South Korea for up to a year before they head to Iraq, where they will spend up to a year, officials said.

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the redeployment is necessary because nearly the entire 10-division Army is committed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The Army is so stretched that you have to consider radical things like that," O'Hanlon said.

"It reflects the fact we are at war," a senior officer told reporters at the Pentagon, noting that the division in South Korea is highly trained and one of the few that have not deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. "This is placing a demand, clearly, on the forces."

The United States is removing one of its two combat brigades in South Korea, where it has kept about 37,000 troops for at least 15 years. It is uncertain whether troop strength will eventually return to that level, said the senior officer and a defense official briefing reporters on condition of anonymity.

Officials stressed that the reduction in troops in South Korea would not diminish the U.S. ability to deter North Korean aggression. In recent years, the United States has boosted its capabilities in the Pacific region to include more Army missile battalions and Air Force planes.

"Our deterrent power has been increased," the defense official said.

Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee, questioned the redeployment, which he said shows that the Iraq war has "seriously strained" the ability of the U.S. government to deal effectively with North Korea.

"What signal is the administration sending about our resolve if the U.S. is forced to move troops?" he asked.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, said the troop reassignment serves two purposes. For more than a year, the Bush administration has held discussions about reducing U.S. forces in South Korea and Europe. The current level of U.S. troops in Korea is unneeded, Thompson said, while there is urgent need in Iraq.

"This seems to be serving both those purposes," he said.

The Pentagon has agreed to temporarily add 30,000 troops to the 480,000-soldier Army over the next several years.

"In the near term, it doesn't have much choice but to move forces around," Thompson said.

Reed and Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said the Army needs more troops, with Reed proposing an amendment for a permanent increase of 30,000 active-duty troops.

McCain said "it would be difficult to vote against" Reed's proposal. "We may need that and more, as I said a long time ago," McCain said. "We're fighting an insurgency now. We needed them a long time ago. It's very disconcerting."

O'Hanlon has estimated that the 30,000 figure is only about half what the Army needs to meet its commitments overseas. Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has said the Army needs about 40,000 more troops.

The decision to shift some U.S. troops out of South Korea comes on the heels of a Pentagon decision to keep 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through the end of 2005, most from the Army. Defense officials had hoped last year to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to 30,000 by the end of this summer.

But the insurgency has been growing and includes foreign terrorists, former members of dictator Saddam Hussein's security forces and, increasingly, members of the Shiite Muslim ethnic majority. As a result, the U.S. military has revised its estimates of needed troop strength.

The 3,600 U.S. troops from South Korea will join 10,000 troops already announced: the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y., and Marine units that include the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Sun staff writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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