South Korea ends Iraq deployment, troops head home

U.S. Army soldiers from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment pray before heading out on patrol in Baqouba, , 35 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, Iraq on Sunday, Nov. 30, 2008. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

IRBIL, Iraq (AP) -- A South Korean general offered a wish for peace in Iraq on Monday as his troops ended a five-year reconstruction mission in the country - the latest departure from the dwindling U.S.-led coalition.

The South Koreans are among troops from 13 countries being sent home in advance of the Dec. 31 expiration of the U.N. mandate that authorized military operations in Iraq. The South Koreans will begin leaving Wednesday and are all due to depart by Dec. 20, the country's military said.

"Although we are leaving this place, all of us are going to sincerely wish for the peace and prosperity of the government of Iraq and successful fulfillment of our allies' missions," Maj. Gen. Park Sun-Woo said during a brief ceremony in Irbil, 220 miles north of Baghdad.

The first South Korean "Zaytun" contingent - the Arabic word for olive and the troops' code name for their mission - was sent to Irbil in September 2004 with 3,600 troops. About 520 troops will be part of this month's withdrawal.

At its height, the coalition numbered about 300,000 soldiers from 38 countries - 250,000 from the United States, about 40,000 from Britain, and the rest ranging from 2,000 Australians to 70 Albanians.

Besides the Americans, the only coalition troops to remain in Iraq after the mandate expires will be the United States' biggest ally, Britain, as well as Australia, El Salvador, Estonia and Romania.

Iraq's parliament has approved a U.S. security pact that requires all American troops to withdraw from the country in three years. The pact still must be signed by a three-member presidential council and submitted to the voters in a referendum by July 30.

The U.S. now has more than 150,000 troops in Iraq, compared with 4,000 for Britain, the second-largest contributor. Those countries whose troops remain in Iraq will negotiate their own agreements with the Iraqi government.

South Korea has had troops stationed in Iraq as part of a reconstruction mission since 2003 at the request of Washington, which has 28,000 troops based in South Korea as a deterrent against North Korea.

South Korean troops have generally been spared much of the violence in Iraq because of their location in the primarily peaceful three northern provinces where Kurds have enjoyed self-rule since 1991. The country's only military casualty came in Irbil when a soldier was found shot dead in a military barbershop.

The country's troops have focused on rebuilding schools and roads and providing humanitarian aid.

Since deploying to Irbil in 2004, Zaytun's medical unit has treated more than 88,800 Iraqis, and South Korean troops have taught more than 2,000 people how to use computers and other equipment, the South Korean military said in a statement Monday from Seoul.

The South Koreans also spent time in southern Iraq. Some 670 troops - medics and engineers - were dispatched to Nasiriyah in 2003. But the next year, some of those returned home while the others moved to Irbil to join the Zaytun unit.

Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, said the South Korean mission was the most successful reconstruction effort in Iraq.

"The future of this area is very important to us. Rest assured we plan on building on the fundamentals the Koreans and Iraqis have begun here," Austin told the South Korean troops.

Some South Koreans believed participating in the Iraq operation would strengthen ties to the United States.

However, the deployment has been unpopular among some South Koreans, who generally view the U.S.-led war in Iraq as unjust.

South Korea's government had to overcome strong protests from activists when accepting U.S. requests for troops and later to extend the deployment.

Opposition mounted after Islamic extremists beheaded a South Korean civilian working in Iraq in 2004.