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S. Korea force may grow

SEOUL -- South Korea's Cabinet answered Washington's call for help in Iraq, approving a plan yesterday to send 3,000 troops to the war-torn country as early as April in a mission that would make Seoul the biggest contributor to coalition forces after the United States and Britain.

The plan, deeply unpopular with the public, must still win approval from South Korea's National Assembly. Yesterday's Cabinet decision triggered protests in Seoul, where hundreds of activists tried to rush the parliament building with banners reading "No more blood for Bush!"

President Bush earlier made a phone call to thank President Roh Moo-hyun for pushing the new deployment, in addition to the 460 South Korean troops already operating in Iraq.

The new deployment, likely to include special force commandos and combat-ready marines, will be solely responsible for security and reconstruction around the northern oil city of Kirkuk, said Lieutenant General Kim Jang Soo, chief operation director at the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"The US side gave a positive response," said Kim, who returned to South Korea on Monday after discussions in Washington on details of the deployment.

Roh's Cabinet approved a bill late yesterday afternoon to authorize the mission but did not have time to submit it to Parliament. Roh's office had earlier said that would be done by today.

All major political parties have indicated they will approve the bill, despite the mission's unpopularity with the public.

"We agreed to send the troops near the end of April," Kim said.

Some 300 activists briefly scuffled with police yesterday as they tried to march toward the National Assembly to protest the troop dispatch with banners.

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