updated 5/17/2004 2:03:35 PM ET 2004-05-17T18:03:35

In a sign of the Iraq war’s increasing strain on the U.S. Army, the Pentagon is planning an extraordinary shift of 3,600 troops to Iraq from their garrisons in South Korea this summer, officials said Monday.

The troops are part of the 37,000 American troops permanently stationed in South Korea to deter an invasion by forces of communist North Korea. A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Flex Plexico, said the decision to move them to Iraq was made “at the highest levels of the U.S. government.”

It is not clear whether they will go back to South Korea once their Iraq tour is complete.

President Bush said in a telephone conversation Monday with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun that the move was related to the June 30 transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government and that it in no way reduced America’s treaty commitment to the defense of South Korea, officials in Seoul said.

S. Korea says it understands
A statement issued by Roh’s office said the South Korean leader “expressed understanding.” The two presidents also discussed South Korea’s plan to send 3,600 of its troops to Iraq.

The move reflects not only the Army’s difficulty in finding enough soldiers for the next rotation of forces into Iraq later this year but also Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s push for greater flexibility in deploying troops based anywhere in the world, including the Korean peninsula.

Life on the knife's edge

The U.S. commitment to defending South Korea is the most enduring of its kind, after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact that threatened Europe until it dissolved in 1991. U.S. forces saved South Korea after the North invaded without warning in June 1950.

South Korean officials offered the first word Sunday that the United States wanted to move some of the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed there to Iraq, and Pentagon officials said Monday that the arrangement to move 3,600 soldiers was complete. They said they would move this summer but gave no specific date.

Jack Pritchard, a former State Department point man on North Korea and a career Korea specialist, said Monday the North Korean government will be looking for signs of the Pentagon making moves to offset the loss of ground combat power by adding more air power, for example. If no such offsetting moves are made, the North Koreas “will be as happy as pigs in mud,” Pritchard said.

The issue is politically sensitive because of the concern about a potential North Korean attack across the Demilitarized Zone that has separated the North and South since the Korean War ended in a truce in July 1953. U.S. and South Korean forces remain on a war footing because the truce has never been converted to a peace treaty, and the two Koreas are technically still at war.

Historic, but correct?
Tapping into the U.S. force on the Korean peninsula, the Cold War’s last remaining flash point, would be a historic move by the Pentagon. It underscores the degree to which the military is stretched to provide enough forces for Iraq while also meeting its other commitments.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, questioned the move, which he said showed that the Iraq war has “seriously strained” the capacity 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 said.

The Pentagon had planned to reduce the number of troops in Iraq to about 115,000 this spring, but an increasingly bloody insurgency forced a change in plans. The Pentagon announced this month that it now plans to keep about 135,000 troops in Iraq for at least the next year and a half.

U.S. forces have traditionally served as a deterrent against North Korea’s 1.1-million-member military, which is the world’s fifth largest although severely hampered in its equipping and training by the communist nation’s chronic economic problems.

South Korea’s mass-circulation JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, quoting unnamed government sources, reported that a brigade of 4,000 U.S. troops belonging to the 2nd Infantry Division will move to Iraq “within several weeks.”

The division, based at Camp Red Cloud, is deployed along the tense border with North Korea, the world’s most heavily armed. It has a formidable array of combat power, including two combat maneuver brigades, an aviation brigade, a combat engineer brigade, an air defense artillery regiment and a military police company. It has been stationed in South Korea since 1965.

South Korea has feared that a cut in U.S. military presence might weaken the two allies’ combined defense readiness against North Korea amid tension over the communist state’s nuclear weapons program.

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