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SEOUL — Thousands of veterans and war widows marched through downtown Seoul on Wednesday, urging South Korea’s government to answer the U.S. call for international combat troops in Iraq.

But while the banner-toting, flag-waving throng expressed no doubt South Korea should answer the request, public opinion polls show the demonstrators still are in the minority. And with President Roh Moo-hyun staking his presidency on a December referendum on voters’ confidence in his performance, analysts say a decision before year’s end is unlikely.

Those arguments made little sense though to the almost 5,000 veterans from 115 groups who gathered at the national War Memorial next to Yongsan Garrison before marching to Seoul’s main train station.

“Not just because we got some help from the United States before, but we should give those Iraq people freedom and peace,” said Jang Soo-keun, the 60- year-old spokesman for the Korea Freedom League.

“We may build solid peace in the Middle East, and further we can play a role for the world peace.”

Kim Nak-woon, 57, a member of Veterans Association’s Incheon branch, was holding a loudspeaker to regulate the crowd.

“This country is kind of chaotic now,” he said. “When this country has [a] hard time deciding what to do, I think we veterans should lead people to the right direction. … Troop dispatch to Iraq will boost the alliance of South Korea and the United States, and that will also help our slow economy revive.”

Hyun Dong-yun, a 47-year-old member of the Pyongtaek Veterans Association, had a different opinion on the troop dispatch.

“I joined this rally, as I had to,” he said, explaining that his veterans group pressured its members to travel to the rally.

“But personally, I don’t know what to say. When I think of this country’s national interests, maybe we should dispatch our troops, but on my second thought, it’s another country’s affairs. Probably, it’s not right to interfere.”

Yu Young-sook, 74, was part of a group of Korean war widows.

“I lost my husband during the Korean War. We should help America when it’s in need, because they helped us,” Yu said.

“I love America,” she shouted. “I wouldn’t have survived the Korean War without America.”

The president of the Veterans Association, Lee Sang-hun, delivered an even more heated endorsement in his address to the crowd.

“If this country can’t send our servicemembers on active duty, we veterans should get there to work,” he said.

Roh will bring up the issue during a meeting with President Bush on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference next week in Bangkok.

But a senior presidential adviser on foreign affairs was quoted by many South Korean media outlets as saying Roh will not make any commitment at that time.

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