By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian government is determined to press ahead with its plans to send non-combat troops to Iraq despite strong domestic opposition to the U.S.-backed mission, senior officials said on Wednesday.
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and his top deputy made the case for the deployment during a meeting of the Armenian parliament’s committee on defense and security which was held behind the closed doors. Sarkisian refused to divulge details of the discussion, saying only that he is satisfied with it.
The commission will pass judgment on the issue on Friday, just hours before a scheduled parliament debate on authorizing the dispatch of some 50 Armenian military personnel. Its chairman, Mher Shahgeldian, told RFE/RL that his support for the deployment is “based on international political issues and Armenia’s national interests.” However, neither he nor other top officials have so far publicly elaborated on its wisdom.
“I think that it would be desirable for Armenia to make its contribution to Iraq’s reconstruction and democratization,” Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said in separate remarks on Wednesday. This is what “the international community” expects from the country, he said.
The National Assembly, dominated by President Robert Kocharian’s loyalists, is expected to endorse Armenia’s participation in the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing.” “I am confident that deputies conscious of where national interests begin and end will vote for [the initiative],” said Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian.
An opinion poll released on Tuesday suggested that 70 percent of Armenia’s citizens disagree with the government’s plans. Critics, among them prominent opposition figures and intellectuals, warn that Armenian military presence could provoke deadly insurgent attacks on an estimated 20,000 Armenians living in Iraq. Sarkisian countered in a recent interview that the security of the Iraqi Armenians would be tenuous anyway.
The two opposition groups represented in parliament have until now been against the troop dispatch. However, Wednesday’s discussion led one of them, the National Unity Party (AMK) of Artashes Geghamian, to indicate a change of tack. An AMK deputy, Gagik Kostandian, said the lawmakers representing the party will vote for the deployment if the government accepts their unspecified “reservations.”
“The country must have an army, act before the world with its army, and stand by all Armenians around the world,” Kostandian said without elaborating.
Senior members of the other opposition force, the Artarutyun bloc, are due to meet on Thursday to formulate a final position on the issue.
The small Armenian military unit is to be stationed in south-central Iraq controlled by a Polish-led multinational division. According to Aghabekian, Yerevan has pledged to send three military doctors, 10 sappers, 30 military truck drivers along with their vehicles as well as an unspecified number of car mechanics. “We are also discussing another option whereby the Armenian side won’t be sending vehicles and they will instead be provided by them,” he told RFE/RL.
Aghabekian further denied reports that Poland’s government, also faced with strong domestic opposition, may withdraw its troops from Iraq within the next few months. “Rest assured that such a thing will not happen,” he said. “I have been to Poland, met with general staff officers there and we discussed that issue.”