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SEOUL — South Korean military leaders here will have the authority to draw down their troops in Iraq next year by up to a third, according to an agreement struck last week with lawmakers.

Both South Korea military leaders and ruling-party lawmakers say their nation intends to continue to support U.S. efforts in Iraq and to honor the decades-old alliance between the U.S. and Korea.

But unlike previous proposals from South Korea’s defense ministry, this time the military wants the ability to decrease its strength in Iraq by up to 1,000 soldiers without further legislative approval, according to a spokesman from the ministry.

Specifically, the ministry wants the option to scale down troops beginning in May or June, said Choi Jong-hyuk, who works in the deployment division of the ministry.

On Thursday, Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung took the proposal to the Assembly’s majority Uri Party leaders, and the two sides agreed, according to Kim Min-sik, a spokesman for the Uri floor leader, Chung sye-kyun.

The possible decrease of Korean troops — from about 3,330 to 2,300 — comes as the United States is seeing other countries withdraw support to rebuild and democratize Iraq.

While coalition forces in Iraq have depended on American troops to support the U.S.-led invasion, more than three dozen countries once gave aid in troops, financing and political support.

After the March 2003 invasion, coalition forces included 300,000 troops from 38 countries, including almost 150,000 from the United States. Now, about 120,000 U.S. troops are working with 24,000 others from 27 countries in an effort to rebuild and stabilize Iraq.

Just last week, Bulgaria and Ukraine said they would withdraw their combined 1,250 troops by mid-December, according to an Associated Press report.

Many of the remaining coalition troops provide support missions rather than security strength. The Zaytun unit from South Korea, first deployed in August 2004, also fills that role.

The Koreans picked the name Zaytun from an Arabic word that translates literally to “olive” but symbolizes peace. They are stationed in Irbil, a mainly Kurdish community in the northern part of Iraq. Their Web site lauds the soldiers’ work with community leaders, showing photos of ribbon-cuttings in front of new health centers and gymnasiums. No South Korean soldier has been killed during the deployment.

The Korean National Assembly must approve the 2006 deployment by the end of this year. No date for a vote has been scheduled.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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