By Ruzanna Stepanian
The spiritual leader of Iraq’s ethnic Armenians has pleaded with the leadership of Armenia not to send any troops to their restive country, warning of grave security risks facing the small and unprotected community, it emerged on Tuesday.
Archbishop Avak Asadurian revealed that he expressed their concerns in a letter to the Armenian parliament which is due to debate the dispatch of a small contingent of non-combat troops later this year. He said he sent a similar message to President Robert Kocharian earlier this year. While declining to disclose the content of the letters, Asadurian endorsed the main argument of the opponents of Armenia’s military presence in Iraq.
“There is an Armenian community, Armenian structures here and they may become targets for terrorists,” he told RFE/RL by phone.
The concerns were echoed by another Armenian cleric in Baghdad who cited continuing insurgent attacks on representatives of foreign nations helping the U.S. occupation force.
“We Iraqi Armenians are against that,” said Narek Ishkhanian, a parrish priest. “We fear that they will start kidnapping and killing us and attacking our churches and other institutions.
“So we are asking them not take such a step. It would create a very bad situation for our community. Take pity on us.”
There are an estimated 20,000 Iraqi citizens of Armenian extraction, most of them descendents of 1915 genocide survivors. They are keeping a very low profile and have so far managed to avoid substantial casualties in the chaos and lawlessness that have plagued the country since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
But fears for their security increased two months ago when an wave of bomb attacks rocked five Catholic churches in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul, killing at least 11 people. One of the churches belongs to Armenian Catholics.
According to Ishkhanian’s wife Dzovinar who runs Baghdad’s sole Armenian church, word of the impending arrival of military doctors, sappers and truck drivers from Armenia has already reached Iraq and has not gone down well with its predominantly Arab population.
“Newspapers here write that even friendly Armenia is going to send troops to help the occupiers,” she said. “The locals do not accept them.”
“The Iraqi papers say that this is not a right thing,” Archbishop Asadurian confirmed.
Dzovinar Ishkhanian said that parents of her students fear that the Armenian school could become an easy target for anti-American militants and are beginning to transfer them to other Christian educational institutions. As many as 35 students have already left the school, she added.
The Armenian military personnell is due to be deployed in the south central section of Iraq administered by a Polish-led multionational division. The plans for their deployment, which has to be approved by the National Assembly, were formalized during Kocharian’s recent visit to Poland.
The Armenian government is at pains to stress that it will not be sending armed units to Iraq and would only like to assist in the country’s post-war reconstruction. However, its intention to join the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” is meeting with growing domestic opposition. Armenia’s main opposition group and two dozen non-governmental organizations have issued statements warning of the security risks.
Meanwhile, an official from Iraq’s U.S.-backed interim government was in Yerevan on Tuesday, meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Ruben Shugarian. A statement by the Armenian Foreign Ministry said Tariq Muhammad Yahya, an adviser to Iraq’s foreign minister, and an Iraqi businessman accompanying him praised Yerevan’s “balanced” policy on their country. They were quoted as calling for the restoration of Iraqi-Armenian economic links and a direct flight service between Yerevan and Baghdad in particular. The statement did not specify if the planned Armenian deployment in Iraq was also discussed at the meeting.
Interestingly, Yahya was Baghdad’s charge d’affaires in Armenia up until the April 2003 downfall of Saddam. He publicly renounced in Yerevan his allegiance to the Iraqi dicator shortly after the start of the U.S.-led military campaign.
(AP-Photolur photo: Iraqi security personnel guarding the shrine of Imam Khadem in Baghdad on Tuesday.)