By Ruzanna Stepanian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
About two-dozen non-governmental organizations added on Friday to growing domestic pressure on official Yerevan to abandon its plans for the dispatch of Armenian military personnel to Iraq.
In a joint statement, the civic groups dealing with women’s issues and environment protection endorsed the main argument of opponents of the deployment who believe that it would provoke terrorist attacks on tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians living in Iraq and other Arab nations. “We have to think about their security before taking such a step,” they said.
The statement urged the Armenian parliament to block the deployment. The National Assembly is expected to debate the issue this fall. The government needs its consent for sending an estimated 50 military doctors, sappers and truck drivers to Iraq.
The Armenian leaders say the servicemen will perform non-combat tasks and thereby assist in the U.S.-led post-war reconstruction of the war-ravaged country. They also say Yerevan’s engagement will only benefit the Iraqi Armenians.
Their opponents, including Armenia’s biggest opposition group and two top generals, claim the opposite, citing the continuing wave of kidnappings and killings of foreign citizens by Iraqi insurgents. “We have a totally unprotected community in Iraq,” Nora Hakobian, chairwoman of the Republican Council of Women, told RFE/RL.
“We are not driven by fear, we are driven by prudence,” she added. “Sixty persons can not cause a breakthrough in the Iraq war.”
“We risk turning a community of 25,000 people into hostages,” warned Karine Danielian, another signatory of the statement. “We would simply deliver that community to terrorists who otherwise have to look for foreigners before taking hostages. We would not only endanger the Armenian community but also aggravate the overall situation in Iraq.”
Greta Mirzoyan, who heads a group called the Soldier’s Mother, said she has talked to some of the army doctors who have been chosen for the Iraq mission. “Each of those doctors said they are not prepared to go to Iraq given what has been happening there. Of course they are scared,” she said.
Mirzoyan claimed that the doctors are being forced by the Armenian military to risk their lives for “insignificant sums.” But the spokesman for the Defense Ministry, Colonel Seyran Shahsuvarian, insisted that nobody will be sent to Iraq against their will.
“Everything will be on an absolutely voluntary basis,” Shahsuvarian told RFE/RL. “I don’t think there will be a lack of volunteers not only because they are soldiers but also because they will be paid well.”
Armenia’s parliament is dominated by supporters of President Robert Kocharian and his three-party governing coalition. Its main pro-government factions have not yet discussed and formulated a position on the issue.
Vahan Hovannisian, a senior lawmaker representing the ruling Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), on Friday expressed misgivings about Armenia joining the U.S.-led occupation force. He indicated that Armenia should consult with its main ally Russia as well as major European powers opposed to the Iraq war before making a final decision.
“We remain a signatory to the [Russian-led] Collective Security Treaty and if we can’t solve this issue with our allies we would be very wrong,” Hovannisian told a news conference. “We also have senior partners in the Council of Europe -- France, Germany and Russia -- that are not quite enthusiastic about the American actions in Iraq. As a member of the Council of Europe we can not fail to take into account their opinion.”
“But the most important thing is that we have big communities in the Arab countries and the broader Muslim world,” he added.