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St. Petersburg Times (Florida) January 28, 2005

Koreans quietly help in Iraq

By Susan Taylor Martin

Before November, almost no one here had ever met a Korean or ridden in a Korean-made Hyundai vehicle.

Now, four times a week, dozens of Iraqis climb on a Hyundai bus to be taken for treatment at a Korean-run hospital.

In the past few months, South Korea has quietly become the country with the third most soldiers deployed in Iraq, after the United States and Britain. It sounds impressive, but the actual number of Koreans and the nature of their operation show the thinness of international support for the Bush administration's effort to turn Iraq into a stable, democratic nation.

Korea has just 3,600 soldiers in Iraq compared to 150,000 from the United States. Though they are based in the Kurdish-controlled north - by far the safest part of Iraq - the Koreans spend most of their time in an isolated, massively fortified compound.

So protective is Korea of its troops that it has sliced the scenic countryside with miles of trenches and berms to keep vehicles from reaching the base except by heavily guarded roads.

The soldiers, some locals joke, are part of the "Coalition of the Sort of Willing."

Undaunted, the South Koreans point with pride to what they have accomplished since they began work here in November:

A mobile clinic and base hospital that treat residents of nearby villages as well as those from Irbil, the Kurdish capital; an advanced training program for Kurdish doctors and nurses; a vocational school, still under construction, that will offer classes in computers, electronics and auto repair.

Those who have worked with the Koreans generally sing their praises.

"They are very polite and good," says Ako Abbas Nader, who has served as a translator for the past month. "They are working for us, and we will work for them."

The Koreans have declined recent requests from journalists to tour their base, citing security and political concerns as Iraqis prepare to vote Sunday in their first democratic elections.

"We don't want to be seen as influencing the elections," said a captain, who did not want his name used. "But we are getting good response - we are nice to the people here and they are nice and gracious to us. We are in the process of winning hearts and minds."

Still, the extreme caution with which the Koreans have carried out their deployment reflects the unpopularity of the war not only among their own people but other nationalities as well.

As the United States prepared to invade Iraq in 2003, the White House unveiled a 45-member "Coalition of the Willing" list to bolster its argument that the war had broad international support. Since then, six countries, including Spain, have pulled their soldiers from Iraq, and another half dozen have reduced or are planning to reduce their troop strength.

Earlier this month, Reuters news service reported that the White House had scrapped the list altogether.

The South Korean government has viewed its mission in Iraq as a way to strengthen its alliance with the United States and gain its support for a peaceful resolution of the dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons development.

Last June, South Korea said it would send 3,000 troops to northern Iraq and move another 600 up from the south, where they had been doing medical and engineering work. But just days after the announcement, public outrage erupted when a Korean employee of a U.S. military supplier was taken hostage and shown on Arab TV pleading for his life.

Hundreds of Koreans demonstrated in Seoul, the capital, and demanded the government reverse its decision. Some carried placards that said: "Sending the troops kills, kills, kills!"

The hostage was beheaded. In a poll taken shortly before the U.S. presidential election in November, a majority of South Koreans said that the war was a mistake and that the world had become more dangerous as a result.

The region in which their soldiers are now based is the most stable in Iraq, thanks to 12 years of U.S. and British air cover that allowed the Kurds, a non-Arab group, to live independently from Saddam Hussein's murderous regime.

The Kurdish region is so safe, relatively speaking, that a small unit of American soldiers stays in ordinary houses, with only modest protection, in a village near Irbil.

The Koreans, on the other hand, live in a fortress of razor wire, sand bags and blast walls in a remote area several miles from the city. No vehicles can approach without clearing at least two checkpoints with armed guards.

"This region is stable compared to other regions," the South Korean captain said, "but there is no region in Iraq that is secure. If it were secure, instead of the military, there should be civilian companies and government" doing reconstruction work.

Local residents say the South Koreans rarely venture off their base, except for doctors and other medical personnel who staff a mobile clinic. Since November, the mobile clinic has paid a few visits to nearby villages, treating residents for minor ailments like toothaches and superficial burns.

Patients with more serious conditions go to a 30-bed hospital on the base. They are referred there by the Kurdish government's Ministry of Health, and are transported on Hyundai coaches that say "We Are Friends" in English and Kurdish on the side.

Sensitive to Muslim customs, the hospital has separate areas for male and female patients. There are specialists in psychiatry, Oriental medicines and ear, nose and throat.

"I guess 90 percent of the local people know about this through TV and newspapers" said Jawad Jala, a translator at the hospital.

South Korea also has contributed an undisclosed sum for local road-paving projects. The work is done by Iraqi companies but supervised by Korean engineers.

The Koreans say they are contributing to the economy by hiring scores of Kurds as drivers, translators and the like. But in a region where no one speaks Korean, soldiers and locals use a complicated system to communicate. Typically, a Kurdish interpreter translates from Kurdish into English, and a Korean interpreter then translates from English into Korean.

One English-speaking Korean soldier said he spends so many hours a day on duty that he has little time for entertainment. The one exception?

"I like Friends and Sex in the City. They're really - how you say? - top notch."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

IRAQ: THE LATEST

PRE-ELECTION VIOLENCE: Attacks across the country kill at least a dozen, including a U.S. Marine, as Iraqi and American forces deploy to protect polling stations for Sunday's election. A video threatens the prime minister personally.

A BLOW TO HAWAII: Wednesday's helicopter crash in Iraq was the worst loss of troops based in Hawaii since Pearl Harbor. Most have not been identified publicly, but one of the fallen Marines was from Orlando.

IRAQI COALITION BREAKDOWNSome 150,000 U. S. troops are About 23,900 troops from othe nations are there, as well. Here are the top 10:

UNITED KINGDOM 8,760+

SOUTH KOREA 3,600

ITALY 3,085

POLAND 2,500

UKRAINE 1,589

NETHERLANDS 1,345

ROMANIA 700

JAPAN 550+

DENMARK 496

BULGARIA 485+

+ approximate

Source: GlobalSecurity.org, Times chart


Copyright 2005, Times Publishing Company