By Emil Danielyan
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian met on Thursday with a visiting senior official from the U.S. State Department to discuss a broad range of issues of mutual interest, including Armenia’s plans to send non-combat troops to Iraq.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Oskanian and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Laura Kennedy “exchanged thoughts on the post-war rehabilitation in Iraq and the Armenian side’s possible participation in that effort.” No details were reported.
Armenian and U.S. officials have been discussing for the past year details of the planned dispatch of a small Armenian military contingent comprising medics, sappers and a transportation unit. According to the Armenian Assembly of America, President George W. Bush stated that he is “look[ing] forward to seeing [Armenian] troops on the ground soon” in a recent message to President Robert Kocharian.
A team of Armenian Defense Ministry officials was due to visit Iraq late last month to prepare for the deployment expected by the end of this year. It would give a largely symbolic boost to the U.S.-led occupation force which has been struggling to restore law and order in the country since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
The planned deployed has prompted protests from Armenia’s leading opposition groups and dozens of non-governmental organizations. They have warned that even a cosmetic Armenian military presence would leave thousands of ethnic Armenians living in Iraq vulnerable to deadly attacks by anti-American insurgents. Leaders of the Armenian community have likewise appealed to Yerevan not to send any military personnel.
Armenian officials, notably Defense Minster Serzh Sarkisian, have dismissed those calls, stressing the “humanitarian” character of the mission. Sarkisian argued in recent televised remarks that Armenia should make its modest contribution to international “stability” maintained by major foreign powers for its own national interests.
Still, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian announced on Wednesday that Yerevan’s deployment plans could be affected by a possible withdrawal of Polish troops from Iraq. Poland has the third biggest foreign contingent in Iraq that administers the south central region of the country where the Armenian servicemen are to be deployed.
“The Poles are contemplating about whether to keep their contingent in Iraq,” Markarian told reporters. “After clarifying some questions we may go ahead or not go ahead [with the deployment]. Everything will depend on the situation.”
The Foreign Ministry statement said Oskanian and the U.S. official also discussed Armenia’s relations with Turkey. It quoted Oskanian as complaining that Turkey’s continuing economic blockade of Armenia “hampers regional development.”
Kennedy was appointed as the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs in June. She has had contacts Turkish officials in her capacity as the coordinator of American policy on the conflict in Cyprus. She is scheduled to meet with Kocharian and Sarkisian on Friday.