updated 12/23/2003 6:16:07 AM ET 2003-12-23T11:16:07

The South Korean Cabinet approved a plan Tuesday to send 3,000 troops, possibly including special operations forces and combat-ready marines, to the northern oil town of Kirkuk as early as April to help U.S. forces rebuild Iraq.

The dispatch would make South Korea the biggest contributor to coalition forces in Iraq after the United States and Britain. President Bush praised the mission in a personal phone call overnight to South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

“The U.S. side gave a positive response,” Lt. Gen. Kim Jang-soo said at a news conference. Kim, chief operation director at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, returned to South Korea on Monday after discussions in Washington to nail down details of the deployment.

The new contingent, a mixture of support troops and combat-ready forces, is expected to carry out reconstruction and maintain security in the region around Kirkuk, Kim said.

At a Cabinet meeting later Tuesday, ministers approved a bill requesting the planned deployment. But the mission must still win the consent of parliament.

“We agreed to send the troops near the end of April,” he said. “We noted that the timing could change depending on National Assembly approval.”

Maj. Kim Ki-beom, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said the Ministry has not yet decided when it will submit the bill. But Roh’s office said earlier it would be offered by Wednesday.

All major political parties have indicated that they would approve the bill, although a troop deployment is unpopular with the public.

Activists protest planned dispatch
On Tuesday, some 300 activists, mostly students, briefly scuffled with police as they tried to march toward the National Assembly to protest the troop dispatch plan. No injuries were reported.

“No more blood for Bush!” read banners held by the protesters.

Opposition to the dispatch has risen since two South Korean engineers were killed by gunmen north of Baghdad late last month amid a rash of attacks on coalition personnel.

South Korea already has 460 military medics and engineers operating in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. Kim said the new contingent will be a mixture of non-combat support troops and forces that could include special operations or marine corps troops.

The troops will be equipped with anti-tank artillery and armored vehicles as well as personal firearms and bazookas, Kim said.

Bush on Monday thanked Roh for agreeing to send troops, Roh’s office said. During an 18-minute telephone conversation, the two leaders also agreed to step up efforts to convene a new round of six-nation talks to ease tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Bush called Roh hours after a South Korean delegation returned from Washington.

Roh has vowed to push the deployment as a sign of solidarity with Washington, saying the dispatch will help garner U.S. support for peacefully resolving a prolonged crisis over North Korea.

The United States is trying to persuade North Korea to scrap its nuclear program through six-nation talks, which include South Korea, Japan, Russia and China.

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