With the Iraq war stretching the Army to its limit, the Pentagon announced Monday that it would move 3,600 soldiers from their garrisons in South Korea to Iraq this summer.
The decision to move troops from a unit stationed long-term in South Korea underscores how much the military is straining to provide enough forces for Iraq while meeting its other commitments around the world.
The troop relocation dominated headlines in Seoul on Monday, and South Korea’s top officials took telephone calls from their American counterparts explaining the action. The departure of even a relatively small number of U.S. troops is an enormously touchy subject in South Korea, which lives with vivid memories of the 1950-53 Korean War.
But the movement of troops is “needed in this case, and it reflects the fact that we are at war,” a senior military official told reporters at the Pentagon.
The U.S. military planned to reduce the number of troops in Iraq to about 115,000 this spring, but the fierceness of the insurgency has forced it to change plans. Defense officials announced this month that the Pentagon planned to keep at least 135,000 troops in Iraq for the next year and a half. The military official said Monday that the number could be as high as 138,000 for the next year.
With tens of thousands of service men and women in Iraq already serving well past the time they thought they would be going home, replacements have to come from somewhere.
Pentagon plans call for sending the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division from South Korea to Iraq. The planned one-year tour in the war zone will mean that most of the soldiers will be deployed for the unusually long period of 18 to 24 months.
But unlike other Army units that could have been sent to the fight, the troops based in South Korea have not served in either Afghanistan or Iraq.
“This is the right unit at this time,” the senior military official said.
The war in Iraq, the official added, “is placing a demand, clearly, on the force.”
The brigade’s move from South Korea, slated to begin in late August, also reflects a change in Pentagon policies on maintaining forces in Asia.
The 37,000 U.S. troops guarding South Korea had been considered untouchable by the Pentagon for deployment to other trouble spots because of the risk of attack from communist North Korea’s 1.1-million-member military.
However, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been pushing for more flexibility to deploy troops to such conflict zones as Iraq or Afghanistan from anywhere in the world. Pentagon officials said that in response they had moved sophisticated aircraft and the Army’s latest infantry vehicles, called Strykers, to the Korean peninsula over the past year.
“Due to our strengthened posture and the ability to quickly reinforce capabilities throughout the region, we can deploy forces from Korea without assuming additional operational risks,” said Richard Lawless, deputy undersecretary of Defense for Asia Pacific policy.
A senior defense official who also briefed reporters at the Pentagon on condition of anonymity said it had not been decided whether the 2nd Brigade would go back to South Korea once the Iraq tour was completed, or whether its departure from South Korea represented a permanent reduction in U.S. forces on the peninsula.
The official said it was possible that another Army unit of similar size would be sent to South Korea to replace the brigade during its absence. Or the Pentagon could decide to not send a replacement.
The official described the move as a “relocation” of the brigade. He said it came in the context of a longer-term reorganization and streamlining of U.S. forces in South Korea.
President Bush told South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun in a telephone conversation Monday that the troops were needed to support the planned June 30 transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government, the White House said. He said the move did not reduce the United States’ treaty commitment to the defense of South Korea, officials in Seoul said.
Although young South Koreans frequently demonstrate against the U.S. troop presence, many people, particularly among the older generation, worry that their country could be overrun by North Korea’s army without the United States standing guard at the frontier. The fears have been fanned by the North’s moves since 2002 to restart and accelerate its nuclear weapons program.
Kim Sook, chief of the South Korean Foreign Ministry’s North American division, said Monday that his government was adequately assured that the brigade’s departure would not weaken the deterrent effect of the U.S. presence.
“The numbers of troops are not important,” Kim said. “The mere fact that the U.S. forces are stationed here is of great symbolic importance.”
The soldiers going to Iraq belong to one of the two ground maneuver brigades of the 2nd Infantry Division. Those brigades -- stationed at Camp Red Cloud in Dongducheon in the northernmost reaches of South Korea -- have long been considered the backbone of the U.S. presence in South Korea.
Derek J. Mitchell, a former Pentagon official who is an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the redeployment of some troops to Iraq could be the start of a larger reduction in forces in South Korea.
“I think there are folks in the Pentagon who are beginning to ask, is this an efficient use of our limited resources? Why do we need to be in Korea?” Mitchell said.
Relations between South Korea and the U.S. have been strained since a wave of anti-American demonstrations in 2002 and the inauguration last year of Roh’s left-of-center government. More recently, however, Roh has tried to patch up some of the differences.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, questioned the redeployment, which he said showed that the Iraq war had “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.
Schrader reported from Washington and Demick from Seoul.