By Armen Zakarian and Emil Danielyan
Armenia will send a team of military officials to Iraq this month that will prepare for the deployment of a small Armenian army contingent in the war-torn country by the end of the year, a senior official said on Friday.
Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian told RFE/RL that the delegation comprising commanders of the Armenian army’s special peace-keeping battalion and U.S.-funded demining center will “take a close look at the location where our contingent will be stationed and ascertain on the spot the tasks which it will perform.”
“We expect that after the completion of all formalities the Armenian contingent will leave for Iraq at the end of the autumn or at the beginning of the winter to start carrying out its mission,” he said, confirming that it will be made up of U.S.-trained sappers, doctors and a company of military truck drivers.
The chief of the army staff, Colonel-General Mikael Harutiunian, said earlier that a total of about 50 Armenian servicemen will be sent to Iraq. Aghabekian revealed that the non-combat military personnel will be based in the central southern region of the country administered by a Polish-led multinational force. He said Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian will pass a relevant official note to his Polish counterpart during President Robert Kocharian’s visit to Warsaw which begins on Sunday.
The Polish government, which has 2,500 troops on the ground, is facing strong domestic opposition to the military presence in Iraq and is gradually scaling it back. Last month Polish troops handed over some of the zone they control to U.S. forces, including the restive province of Najaf. More such handovers are expected next year.
Unlike NATO member Poland, Armenia did not back the U.S. invasion of Iraq last year. Nonetheless, it decided in principle to join the U.S.-led occupation force there shortly after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Official Yerevan has said it is undaunted by continuing unrest in the embattled country where deadly bombings and hostage taking are a common occurrence.
Over the past year Iraqi insurgents have kidnapped scores of foreign nationals in a bid to force their countries to withdraw troops from Iraq or stop other forms of cooperation with the Americans. At least 25 of them have already been killed by their captors.
Among the victims are three Turkish truck drivers whose bodies were found on Thursday. Seven other truck drivers from India, Kenya and Egypt were set free earlier this week after their Kuwaiti employers paid a $500,000 ransom to the hostage-takers.
The planned Armenian deployment could also put at greater risk the lives of thousands of ethnic Armenians living in Iraq. Like other Iraqi Christians, they have been regarded as another potential target of the Islamist-led insurgency since last month’s wave of bomb attacks on churches in Baghdad and Mosul. An Armenian Catholic church in Baghdad was among five Christian worship sites hit by the coordinated bombings that left 11 people dead.
The dispatch of the servicemen to Iraq will mark Armenia’s second military mission abroad. Thirty-three Armenian soldiers and officers began the first such mission last February when they joined the NATO-led peace-keeping force in the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo. Aghabekian said they will return home and be replaced by another platoon of the Armenian peace-keeping battalion next week.