South Korea's National Assembly yesterday voted overwhelmingly to approve the dispatch of more than 3,000 troops to Iraq amid a tense confrontation between riot police and activists.
Assembly officials said 155 lawmakers voted for the bill with 50 against and seven abstaining, after nearly five months of debate.
President Roh Moo-hyun's office welcomed the vote, praising legislators for acting in the national interest.
"We thank the National Assembly for passing the bill from the perspective of national interests," presidential spokesman Yoon Tai-young said.
"We will do our best to make the troop dispatch serve as an occasion to develop a new bilateral relationship with Iraq."
Roh agreed last year to send troops to Iraq at the request of the US and urged parliament in December to endorse the troop dispatch for peace-keeping and reconstruction work.
South Korea officials say the troops, including about 800 combatants, will be deployed in April in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
The contingent will be the third-largest in the war-torn country after the US and Britain.
The last time South Korea sent combat forces overseas was nearly 40 years ago to Vietnam. The contingent includes special commandos deployed abroad for the first time since their unit was formed in 1983.
South Korea has already stationed some 400 non-combat troops in Iraq. The new deployment will bring the figure to around 3,600.
The motion designates a deployment period from April to the end of this year, but contains provisions allowing for the early repatriation of the contingent.
The sensitive US request for South Korean troops came in September, splitting public opinion and triggering demonstrations both for and against the dispatch.
Some 600 noisy protesters confronted thousands of riot police outside the National Assembly during yesterday's vote, chanting "No troop dispatch to Iraq."
Scuffles erupted when some angry protesters shouting anti-US slogans tried to break through a barricade of police buses.
"We do not want to see our sons and Iraqi people bleeding for the re-election of US President George W. Bush," leading activist Oh Jong-ryul said in a statement.
South Korean government officials believe the additional dispatch will strengthen ties between Seoul and Washington.
The 50-year US-South Korean military alliance was a key factor in the decision to send troops to Iraq. Some 37,000 US troops are stationed here under a mutual defense pact to deter communist North Korea from attacking the South.
The decision to send troops to Iraq comes amid a lingering 16-month-old crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang has angrily opposed the South Korean troop deployment.
Washington had reportedly requested South Korean troops engage in more military-oriented missions to stabilize Iraq.