By Anna Saghabalian
Armenia’s Constitutional Court gave the government the green light on Wednesday to send Armenian non-combat troops to Iraq, a deployment which Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian claimed will spare the country international isolation.
The ruling paved the way for a debate on the issue in parliament dominated by President Robert Kocharian’s loyalists. Some of them have serious misgivings about the wisdom of the deployment, sharing concerns about the security of Iraq’s Armenian community.
But Sarkisian brushed aside those concerns as he addressed the panel of nine judges. “Armenia could not have stayed isolated from regional developments,” he said. “Hence, the Armenian authorities’ decision to participate in the process of Iraq’s stabilization.”
Sarkisian warned that Armenia’s failure to follow neighboring Azerbaijan’s and Georgia’s example and join the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” in Iraq “could create certain obstacles to a further expansion of Armenia’s cooperation in the international arena.” He did not elaborate.
The one-day court hearing centered on an agreement between Poland and 18 other countries that have troops in a Polish-led multinational division controlling south-central Iraq. Kocharian promised to place about 50 Armenian military doctors, sappers and truck drivers under Polish command during a visit to Warsaw last September. The Constitutional Court found that the agreement does not run counter to the Armenian constitution.
Sarkisian said Yerevan will sign up to the document on the condition that the Armenian military personnel take part only in “defensive and humanitarian activities” and avoid joint actions with the bigger Azerbaijani contingent. “Performance of joint tasks with the contingent of Azerbaijani armed forces stationed in Iraq will not be acceptable,” he said.
Speaking to reporters afterward, the powerful defense chief was confident that the National Assembly will endorse the deployment plans welcomed by the United States. “I think that the overwhelming majority of our parliamentarians care about Armenia’s future and will not make emotional decisions,” he said.
Critics have been warning that an estimated 25,000 Iraqi citizens of Armenian descent could face retaliatory attacks from Iraqi insurgents once Armenia becomes part of the U.S.-led occupation force. The insurgents have routinely kidnapped and killed citizens of countries cooperating with it.
Leaders of the Iraqi Armenians have themselves exhorted Kocharian not to send any servicemen. Underscoring their fears was Tuesday’s bombing of Armenian and Chaldean churches in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. News reports said gunmen burst in and set off explosions inside the buildings, damaging them but hurting no one.
The Armenian Apostolic Church condemned the violence, with Catholicos Garegin II warning of a “danger to the centuries-old co-existence of the Christian and Islamic peoples” of Iraq. Garegin urged Iraqi spiritual leaders to prevent the continuing unrest in the country from degenerating into a religious conflict.
The alarm was echoed Pope John Paul II on Wednesday. "I express my spiritual closeness to the faithful, shocked by the attacks," John Paul said, speaking from his apartment window above St. Peter's Square on the Roman Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception.
In Yerevan, meanwhile, one of the Constitutional Court judges, Kim Balayan, wondered if the planned deployment could put the lives of Iraqi Armenians at greater risk. Sarkisian countered that they will be insecure regardless of Armenian military presence in Iraq.
(GI-Photolur photo: A view of a damaged church following the attacks in Mosul.)