By Emil Danielyan
The United States expects Armenia to maintain its modest military presence in Iraq after a change in U.S. war strategy announced by President George W. Bush, a senior American diplomat said on Thursday.
Anthony Godfrey, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Yerevan, praised the Armenian parliament’s decision last month to extend by another year the mandate of a small unit of non-combat Armenian troops stationed there.
“The recent decision by the National Assembly and the recent statements by the defense minister made clear that Armenia understands that it must be a contributor to international security,” Godfrey told reporters. “This is important and dangerous work, and we very much appreciate it.”
“We hope that Armenia will continue to be with us as we work to accomplish this goal,” he said, referring to Bush’s pledge to crush the Iraqi insurgency by sending thousands more U.S. troops and shoring up Iraq’s fledgling security forces.
Forty-six Armenian servicemen -- most of them doctors, demining experts and military truck drivers -- were deployed in a mainly Shia-populated region of Iraq nearly two years ago and are rotated once in every six months. The unpopular deployment reflected the Armenian government’s drive to forge closer security links with the West and the United States in particular.
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian underlined the mission’s significance for Yerevan when he visited Iraq last November to inspect the Armenian contingent and meet the U.S. military command on the ground. Addressing the Armenian parliament on December 5, Sarkisian said the largely symbolic troop presence “adds to Armenia’s international standing.” Neither he nor other Armenian leaders have set any deadlines for the contingent’s eventual withdrawal despite the worsening security situation in Iraq.
Bush’s controversial decision to reinforce the U.S.-led occupation force with more than 20,000 troops may well mean that the Armenian servicemen will remain in Iraq for several more years. According to Godfrey, Washington would only welcome an increase in their number.
“Certainly the United States would welcome an increase,” the diplomat said. “Specifics of this have not been discussed with the government of Armenia. Right now Armenia is making a significant, for Armenia, contribution, and the United States looks to help improve Armenia’s abilities to contribute to international security.”
In Godfrey’s words, the U.S. will specifically carry on with its “very significant” assistance to a special peace-keeping battalion of the Armenian Armed Forces that provides personnel for Yerevan’s ongoing missions in Iraq and Kosovo. The Armenian Defense Ministry plans to turn it into a much bigger unit. The volunteer force will soon be boosted by a U.S.-equipped medical detachment.
Speaking to RFE/RL and two Armenian television stations, Godfrey indicated that this could pave the way for Armenian involvement in other conflict zones such as Afghanistan. “As Armenia develops its peace-keeping capabilities and the U.S. government is providing significant assistance in this, we hope that it will increase its deployment [abroad],” he said.
Godfrey would not say whether a tougher U.S. line on Iran signaled by Bush would make it more difficult for Armenia to deepen political and especially economic ties with the Islamic Republic. But he did reveal that Washington has sought fresh assurances that Yerevan will cooperate with the international community in its efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
“We have been engaged with the government of Armenia, especially since the passage of the new UN Security Council resolution on Iran,” the envoy said. “Armenia has made commitments to abide by this resolution.”
(Photolur photo: Anthony Godfrey.)