SEOUL, South Korea Ñ Washington's request that South Korea dispatch thousands of infantry troops to Iraq has sparked a new round of anti-American protests in Seoul.
The controversy erupted after Seoul officials acknowledged that the United States has requested the deployment of a "light infantry division" consisting of between 2,000 and 10,000 combat soldiers to Iraq.
Hundreds of anti-U.S. activists staged a rally in central Seoul Tuesday to oppose any further role for South Korean troops in Iraq. In May, South Korea dispatched about 675 army engineers and medics to assist the U.S.-led rehabilitation of post-war Iraq.
Sending troops to Iraq is a very politically charged issue here as many have criticized the United States for starting the Iraqi war without U.N. authorization.
The South Korean government plans to convene a National Security Council meeting of senior ministers on Thursday to discuss the U.S. request.
Meanwhile, unconfirmed local news reports cited a U.S. warning that it would pull thousands of American troops out of South Korea to send them to Iraq if Seoul refuses its request.
Local newspapers, including Donga-Ilbo, reported that the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division would leave South Korea to reposition in Iraq if Seoul rejects Washington's request to dispatch combat troops to assist the U.S.-led peace-keeping efforts in the post-war Middle East.
South Korea's defense chief denied the reports, but they fueled security jitters as the redeployment of the U.S. front-line troops would weaken its deterrence capabilities against communist North Korea.
About 15,000 troops of the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division are scattered among dozens of camps and bases near the heavily-armed inter-Korean border, serving as a "tripwire" that could automatically lead to Washington's involvement in the event of an invasion by North Korea.
"The press reports on the U.S. troops withdrawal are groundless," Defense Minister Defense Minister Cho Young-kil told journalists.
"I see no possibility of such a U.S. troop relocation plan," a senior foreign ministry official said. "The U.S. troops has stationed here under a mutual defense pact. The 2nd Infantry Division has never relocated for the past five decades," he said.
The United States maintains some 37,000 troops in South Korea to deter attacks from North Korea under a bilateral defense treaty signed after the 1950-53 Korean War. The North says the troops are a "source of another war on the peninsula and obstacle to the Korean unification."