By Anna Saghabalian
John Evans, the new U.S. ambassador to Armenia, commended on Wednesday official Yerevan for its plans to join America’s “coalition of the willing” in Iraq with a small unit of non-combat troops.
“We salute Armenia for its announced intention to send a transportation unit along with deminers and some medical personnel to Iraq,” Evans told a news conference in the Armenian capital. He said they could greatly assist the U.S.-led occupation force which has been struggling to pacify the war-torn nation.
The Armenian government first announced its intention to deploy up to 50 servicemen in Iraq a year ago and has since been discussing practical modalities of the operation with U.S. officials. A liaison officer of the Armenian armed forces was posted to the U.S. military’s Central Command in Florida late last year.
A group of Armenian military officials are due to visit an area in central southern Iraq administered by a Polish-led multinational division to prepare for the deployment by the end of this year. A relevant Polish-Armenian agreement was signed during President Robert Kocharian’s visit to Warsaw earlier this month.
The planned deployment, which requires parliament approval, is stirring up debate in Armenia, with two top army generals publicly indicating their opposition to the idea. They argued that Armenia’s largely symbolic military engagement could trigger terrorist attacks against Iraq’s ethnic Armenian community.
Evans said Washington welcomes a public debate on the issue in Armenia. The envoy also reaffirmed U.S. approval of the last-minute cancellation of NATO-led military exercises which were scheduled to begin in Azerbaijan on Monday. The NATO leadership pointed to Baku’s refusal to Armenia’s participation in the maneuvers.
“We do believe that the NATO authorities made the right decision to cancel this exercise,” Evans said. But he was quick to indicate that the move should not be seen as a diplomatic victory for Armenia, saying that it hurt both parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
It was Evans’s first contact with the media since his arrival in the country a month ago. The 56-year-old career diplomat, who introduced himself to reporters in Armenian, had previously headed the Office of Russian Affairs in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs of the U.S State Department.