updated 3/18/2004 9:29:30 PM ET 2004-03-19T02:29:30

South Korea has scrubbed plans to send troops to the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, citing U.S. pressure to participate in “offensive operations,” but it will still send the forces to help rebuild the country, the Defense Ministry said Friday.

The ministry said it was looking for another location to send the promised 3,600 forces.

The dispatch, making South Korea the biggest coalition partner after the United States and Britain, was scheduled to come as early as next month. But Friday’s decision means the mission might be delayed.

The move comes as other allies in the Iraq coalition reconsider their contributions. Spain’s new government made its pullout threat shortly after winning elections Sunday, three days terrorist bombings in Madrid.

On Thursday, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said his country was “misled” about whether Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction and also considering an early troop pull out.

'Close consultations' pledged
“We plan to maintain close consultations with the United States and select an area where we can effectively conduct our mission of peaceful reconstruction under a more stabilized condition, and decide on the timetable for the dispatch,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing unnamed ministry officials, said the dispatch would be put off until June and that the military was considering sites in central or southern Iraq where things are more stable.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry said the “United States cited inevitability for offensive operations to keep security in order in the Kirkuk area, and proposed that a certain number of U.S. troops would remain in Kirkuk to continue to conduct stabilization operations under the tactical control of South Korea.”

The South Korean side said the U.S. proposal does not jibe with South Korea’s intention to “keep its own independent operational command system and conduct peaceful reconstruction.”

Operation Zaytun
Earlier this year, the South Korean parliament approved the dispatch of 3,600 troops — in a mission code named “Zaytun,” or olive in Arabic — to help with Iraqi reconstruction. The public was split over the decision, but the dispatch won the backing of all major political parties.

The troops, to include special forces and marines, were to head to Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, and take control of reconstruction and security needs in the area.

But local media reported that the United States asked to keep a small number of its own troops in a particularly unstable area of the region. South Korea reportedly bristled at having them in its area of command.

About 460 South Korean medics and military engineers have been in the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriyah for almost a year and will come home when the new dispatch is sent.

Prime Minister Goh Kun, acting president after the National Assembly impeached President Roh Moo-hyun last Friday, assumed duty over the weekend promising to follow through on the Iraq mission.

On Feb. 23, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-packed vehicle outside a police station in Kirkuk, killing eight other people.

Kirkuk also has also seen rising ethnic tensions as Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen compete for control of the city, located in one of the world’s richest oil-producing regions.

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