By Hrach Melkumian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
None of Iraq’s estimated 15,000 ethnic Armenian citizens is known to have fled the country since the start of the U.S.-led military campaign against President Saddam Hussein’s regime, officials in Yerevan said on Thursday.
The U.S. embassy, meanwhile, officially denied local press reports that Washington would like to use Armenia’s airspace and airfields for its ongoing war against Iraq.
“According to our information, Armenians in Iraq have not sustained any casualties and are not facing serious food shortages yet,” Armenia’s charge d’affaires to Baghdad, Vazgen Khanjian, told RFE/RL. “So the situation is not yet alarming.”
“But people there remain very concerned because bombs keep falling on their cities,” he added.
Khanjian and another Armenian diplomat remaining in Baghdad were told to leave the Iraqi capital on March 19, the day before U.S. and British unleashed their assault. He said the Armenian Foreign Ministry remains in contact with leaders of Iraq’s Armenian community who regularly update it on the latest war developments.
Official Yerevan has expressed concern about the safety of the Iraqi Armenians and made preparations for their possible influx into Armenia. At least 10,000 ethnic Armenians live in Baghdad and some 2,500 others in the country’s north, including the city of Mosul. Some 1,000 Armenians are thought to reside in the southern city of Basra currently besieged by British troops.
While opposing a U.S. attack on Iraq without a United Nations approval, the Armenian leadership has stopped short of explicitly criticizing the military action.
“I personally believe that Saddam Hussein’s regime must be toppled,” said Hovannes Hovannisian, chairman of the Armenian’s parliament foreign affairs committee. “But the Iraqi people should not suffer in the process.”
Only one major Armenian group, the Communist Party (HKK), has so far openly denounced America’s war effort. Some 50 HKK activists carrying anti-American slogans protested outside the U.S. embassy in Yerevan on Thursday. “We demand that the United States immediately end its aggression and leave Iraq,” said Sanatruk Sahakian, an HKK leader.
The government denied this week press reports that the U.S. has asked it allow U.S. military aircraft to use some of Armenia’s airfields for Iraq missions. The U.S. embassy in Yerevan issued a similar denial on Thursday.
“We appreciate Armenia's support in the war on terrorism; however, the Armenian press reports stating that the U.S. is opening a military base in Armenia are not correct,” the embassy said in a statement sent to RFE/RL.
The statement did not specify whether or not the U.S. military would like to use Armenia’s airspace. The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Dziunik Aghajanian, said Yerevan, which granted the U.S. air force overflight rights during its 2001-2002 campaign in Afghanistan, has received no such requests from the Americans.
Authorities in neighboring Georgia said earlier this week that they are in talks with U.S. officials over such a possibility.
(EPA-Photolur photo: Smoke billows during a US strike on a presidential palace in Baghdad.)