By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Hrach Melkumian
Armenia regretted on Thursday the onset of the U.S.-led war against Iraq, but avoided explicitly criticizing Washington’s efforts to topple President Saddam Hussein by force.
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said official Yerevan hopes for a quick end to the military campaign. He also expressed concern at the fate of at least 15,000 ethnic Armenian citizens of Iraq.
“We regret that diplomacy has produced no positive results and that Iraq’s disarmament is not occurring peacefully,” Oskanian told reporters. “But at this point we don’t think it makes sense to support or oppose the war.”
Armenia, which is only an hour’s flying time from Iraqi territory, has objected to a unilateral U.S. military action lacking a United Nations mandate throughout the crisis. But unlike Russia, France and other major powers opposed to the war, it has stopped short of denouncing the U.S. and its allies. Furthermore, Oskanian on Thursday hinted that Yerevan would now welcome a quick and bloodless overthrow of the Iraqi regime.
“We just hope that consequences of this war will not be extremely negative for the Iraqi people and the regional countries and that all this will end as soon as possible,” he said.
These remarks were echoed by the leader of the Armenian parliament’s largest Miasnutyun (Unity) faction, Galust Sahakian. “The Armenian people are against the war, but I don’t think we have the power to interfere in other countries’ affairs and have any impact on this war,” he said.
The leader of the opposition People’s Voice faction, Grigor Harutiunian, said the war is “unacceptable,” but added that Saddam’s regime deserves little international sympathy. Only one opposition lawmaker, Frunze Kharatian of the Armenian Communist Party, denounced Washington’s actions, complaining that Armenia’s opposition to the war is too soft.
This position struck a chord with some 50 students of the Oriental Studies Department at Yerevan State University who demonstrated outside the U.S. embassy in the Armenian capital in protest against the first U.S. military strikes against Iraq. Their opposition to the war seemed to be shared by many city residents.
“I am categorically against the war,” said Anzhela, an environmentalist. Vruyr, a middle-aged man, said he fears that the Iraqis will set their oil wells on fire, the negative effects of which could be felt in Armenia.
But one student who did not take part in the protest voiced support for the military action. “I think that they do have weapons of mass destruction and could use them sooner or later,” he said of the Iraqis. “And Armenia is not that far away from them.”
Neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan have openly sided with the Americans on the issue. Most Armenian lawmakers believe that this in no way puts Armenia in a more disadvantaged geopolitical position.
The Armenian government, meanwhile, began preparations for a possible influx of Iraqi Armenian refugees, approving plans for a simplified visa regime and temporary shelters for them. Oskanian said Yerevan is seriously concerned about the security of Iraq’s Armenian community.
He revealed on Wednesday that Armenia asked neighboring Turkey and Iran, which border on Iraq, to open transit routes for those Iraqi Armenians who would like to escape to Armenia.
(Reuters-Photolur photo: A fireball illuminates the horizon after an explosion on the Baghdad skyline as U.S. bombs and cruise missiles hit Iraq early Thursday.)