By Astghik Bedevian
The National Assembly voted on Thursday to prolong by one year Armenia’s largely symbolic participation in the U.S.-led occupation force in Iraq despite opposition from one of its pro-government factions.
The permission was requested by President Robert Kocharian and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
A non-combat unit of the Armenian armed forces was deployed in south-central Iraq last January. The 45 servicemen, most of them doctors, demining experts and military truck drivers, served in the Shia-populated area as part of a Polish-led multinational division. They were replaced by the same number of troops flown in from Yerevan after completing a six-month month tour of duty in July.
The parliament’s decision, taken by 73 votes to 12 with one abstention, cleared the way for another troop rotation expected later this month. The deputies who voted against it are affiliated with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), one of the three parties represented in Kocharian’s government. They as well as the lawmakers from the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) alliance were the only parliament factions that voted against the deployment almost one year ago.
The Artarutyun deputies boycotted Thursday’s parliament session. They said their position on the issue has not changed.
Opponents of Armenia’s involvement in the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” have warned that it could provoke retaliatory terrorist attacks on thousands of ethnic Armenians living in Iraq. There have been no reports of such attacks so far. Sarkisian said earlier this week that this fact has proved the critics wrong.
Sarkisian and other Armenian leaders say participation in the risky Iraq mission is necessary for forging closer security links with the United States and NATO -- something which they now describe as one of the components of Armenia’s national security doctrine.
“Our state is involved in a mission which is really beneficial for us,” Galust Sahakian, the leader of the parliament’s biggest pro-Kocharian faction, told RFE/RL. “I think if Armenia doesn’t take risks in the international arena, it will find itself in a very awkward situation.”
But according to Ruben Hovsepian, a Dashnaktsutyun deputy, the security of the Iraqi Armenians is more important than that. He said they can face terrorist attacks “at any moment.” “Danger is such a thing that you can’t measure it with past experience,” Hovsepian added.
U.S. officials have repeatedly praised Yerevan for sending the small contingent to Iraq. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick visited the Armenian troops based in the Iraqi city of Al-Hillah last July to thank them for their service.