By Gevorg Stamboltsian and Emil Danielyan
Armenia remains committed to sending a small contingent of non-combat military personnel to Iraq “in the course of this year” despite the continuing deterioration of security in the country, a top army general said on Monday.
“We are not the kind of organism that abandons its decisions due to a change of situation,” Colonel-General Mikael Harutiunian, chief of the Armenian army staff, told RFE/RL. “We haven’t changed anything yet. We are forming a transport company to be made up of about 30 trucks. We also plan to send a group demining experts and three doctors.”
A total of about 50 Armenian servicemen are likely to be in Iraq, Harutiunian added.
The Armenian government, which did not support Washington’s decision to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, decided in principle last summer to join the U.S.-led multinational occupation force which is increasingly struggling to pacify Iraq. Armenian and U.S. officials have since been discussing practical details of the planned deployment. It is unclear why the discussions have lasted so long.
Addressing Armenian-American advocacy groups in Washington on April 19, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones said the Armenian contingent is expected to arrive in Iraq “by September.” Paving the way for the deployment was an agreement on “acquisitions and cross-servicing” signed in Yerevan a week later by General Harutiunian and the visiting deputy commander of the U.S. troops in Europe, General Charles Wald. The agreement enables the two militaries to exchange logistical support for their forces.
“If Armenia decides to send a truck company to Iraq…they will be able to be provided with fuel without having to pay for it every time,” Wald explained on April 26. “At some point the Armenians will pay United States back.” The general, speaking during his second visit to Yerevan in less than five months, welcomed the document as another manifestation of growing U.S.-Armenian military cooperation.
“Armenia has taken big steps to enhance its security relationship with the United States and NATO in the past six months,” Jones said in her speech. “We have strongly encouraged the Armenian government to permit closer military cooperation with the U.S. and look forward to a positive response from Yerevan,” she added.
Harutiunian’s comments suggest that Yerevan is ready to expose its servicemen to greater risk for the sake of closer military ties with Washington. Spain and two Latin American states have already withdrawn their troops from Iraq amid intensifying terrorist attacks and fighting between U.S. troops and Iraqi insurgents. The situation may further deteriorate ahead of the planned June 30 handover of sovereignty from a U.S.-run administration to an Iraqi interim government.
Two more U.S. soldiers were killed by Shiite militia near the city of Najaf late on Sunday, bringing the total U.S. combat death toll in Iraq to 591.