By Ruzanna Stepanian
The first group of Armenian soldiers deployed in Iraq last January returned home late Wednesday after completing a six-month tour of duty in the U.S.-led multinational occupation force without sustaining any casualties.
The 45 servicemen, most of them doctors, demining experts and military truck drivers, were given a warm welcome by senior Defense Ministry officials and their family members as they disembarked from a U.S. transport plane that landed in Yerevan.
Their arrival completed the first rotation of Armenian non-combat troops that are part of a Polish-led multinational division stationed in south-central Iraq. The second group of servicemen headed to the Shia-populated area a week ago. The departing unit helped them ascertain their tasks and adapt to the local conditions.
Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian, who led the welcoming ceremony at Yerevan’s Erebuni airport, said the Armenian military’s first mission in Iraq was a success. “All the reports coming from Iraq, all the letters that we were getting from the Polish-led multinational division and statements by U.S. representatives testified to a our unit’s brilliant execution of its mission,” he told reporters. “I think the guys’ mood also proves that.”
According to the American embassy in Yerevan, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick “thanked the Armenian troops for their service in Iraq” when he visited the headquarters of their division in the city of Al-Hillah on July 12. Photographs posted by the embassy on its website show Zoellick inspecting the soldiers and shaking their hands.
Aghabekian said one member of the first contingent, Captain Armen Martirosian, stayed in Iraq to liaise with the U.S.-led military command in Baghdad. “We decided that the officer will continue his service in Baghdad as Armenia’s liaison officer at the Baghdad command of the multinational corps to settle all issue arising between our forces and that corps,” he explained.
The Armenian government decided to join the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” despite strong domestic opposition and fears that the move could provoke terrorist attacks on thousands of ethnic Armenians living in Iraq. There have been no reports of such attacks over the past six months.
“I think it is inadmissible to link the two things with each other,” said Aghabekian. “We citizens of the Republic of Armenia must always think about boosting the security of the Republic of Armenia. Both the Armenian community in Iraq and our neighbors and friends understood us.”
The Armenian deployment in Iraq -- and in Kosovo last year -- reflects Yerevan’s growing military cooperation with NATO and the United States in particular. Armenia stepped up last month its participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.
“Armenia’s military cooperation with NATO and the United States is considered one of the pillars of our national security,” argued Aghabekian. “And as our defense minister has said, in that cooperation the Republic of Armenia must not always act as a solicitor and must also make its contribution to peace. As a full-fledged member of that big security system, Armenia was obliged to contribute to peace in Kosovo and Iraq.”
The deputy minister, who coordinates the Armenian military’s external relations, also confirmed that Yerevan is considering participating in the NATO-led peace-keeping force in Afghanistan. “Armenia has not yet received a concrete offer,” he said. “But we should not wait for such an offer to start training personnel. We must be ready for any development.”
(U.S. embassy photo: Zoellick inspecting Armenian troops in Al-Hillah.)