By Hrach Melkumian
A small unit of Armenian non-combat troops will leave for Iraq within the next two weeks to join U.S-led multinational occupation force there, its commander told RFE/RL on Friday.
“There is still no precise date set for our departure, but we expect to leave for Iraq by January 22,” said Captain Garush Avetisian.
The dispatch of the servicemen, among them three doctors, ten demining experts and 30 military truck drivers, was sanctioned by the Armenian parliament late last month. The National Assembly approved it despite strong protests voiced by Armenia’s largest opposition alliance and prominent public figures. An opinion poll released earlier in December showed that Armenians are overwhelmingly against the deployment.
Avetisian was speaking to RFE/RL as he oversaw final preparations for the deployment at a military base in Yerevan. He said all members of the Iraq-bound contingent are professional servicemen that willingly decided to go to Iraq and were chosen on a competitive basis.
“There were many people willing to serve [in Iraq],” he said. “The selection was made in accordance with their disciplinary and combat-readiness record. I am confident that we will achieve our objectives thoroughly and gloriously.”
The servicemen were handed blue berets on Friday -- a move meant to underline what the Armenian government sees as the “humanitarian” nature of the operation. “Our contingent will not take part in combat operations,” Avetisian stressed.
He said the Armenian doctors will provide medical assistance to both the Iraqi military and civilians, while the sappers will defuse unexploded ordnance and mines scattered across the war-ravaged nation. The drivers, for their part, will ship only “humanitarian cargos,” he added.
All of the drivers are part of the Armenian military’s special peace-keeping battalion. One of its combat platoons is currently serving in Kosovo under NATO command.
Major Hamlet Hovakimian, the commander of the transportation unit, said: “We will be escorted by armed guards. But we will also be ready to defend ourselves if necessary.”
The drivers were initially due to head to Iraq along with their vehicles. But it has been decided that they will drive U.S. trucks already stationed there. Hovakimian said his men will need some time to familiarize themselves with them.
The U.S. military will also pay for the Armenian personnel’s salaries that will reportedly average $1,000 a month -- a sizable sum by Armenian standards. The Armenian troops will be rotated once in every six months.
Several drivers interviewed by RFE/RL said their families fear for their lives and tried to keep them from joining the risky mission. One of them, Private Sedrak Harutiunian, summed up their mood when he said, “Of course, our families are worried, but it doesn’t matter. The decision to go there was entirely ours.”