SEOUL, Oct 23 (Reuters) South Korea plans to extend its troop deployment in Iraq by one year through the end of 2008 to support its ally the United States, but will cut its number of soldiers by half to 600, President Roh Moo-hyun said today.
South Korea had the third-largest foreign military contingent in Iraq after the United States and Britain when it began its deployment of then 3,600 soldiers in 2004, but has been rolling back its presence due to public pressure against the mission.
''We are about to send to parliament a proposal to extend the troop pullout deadline, which we had promised last year, once again to the end of next year,'' Roh said in a televised address.
He said South Korea's alliance with the United States was the top priority when he sent troops to Iraq and that bond remains high in importance as Seoul and Washington now work with regional powers to end North Korea's nuclear arms ambitions.
South Korea currently has about 1,200 troops in a relatively safe area in the Kurdish section of the country.
''Now more than ever, a close cooperation between South Korea and the United States is needed,'' Roh said.
The troop presence may also help South Korean firms secure contracts for reconstruction in Iraq, Roh said.
Roh has faced opposition to the deployment from his own ruling liberal party, including its candidate for the December presidential election. The pro-government party has the largest bloc in parliament but not an outright majority.
Roh needs a majority vote by parliament for the extension and the main conservative party is in favour of the plan.
REUTERS ARB DS1138