By Ruzanna KhachatrianThe Armenian parliament voted late Friday by 91 to 23, with one abstention, to permit President Robert Kocharian to send a small military contingent to Iraq, ignoring apparent popular opposition to the move.
The decision, taken behind the closed doors, clears the way for the dispatch of some 50 army doctors, demining experts and truck drivers to an area in south central Iraq controlled by a Polish-led multinational division. The deployment, which could begin as early as next month, will mark another milestone in Armenia’s unfolding military cooperation with the United States.
Only two parliamentary factions representing the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) alliance voted against it. Dashnaktsutyun leaders have said at the same time that they “understand” official motives for the deployment and will not try to block it. They are therefore unlikely to be censured by Kocharian and two other parties represented in his government.
Artarutyun, by contrast, has condemned Yerevan’s intention to join the U.S.-led occupation force, warning of retaliatory insurgent attacks on thousands of ethnic Armenians living in Iraq. Similar fears have been expressed by prominent Armenian public figures and intellectuals. An opinion poll released this week showed that the overwhelming majority of ordinary Armenians agree with them.
Artarutyun lawmakers, suspending their ten-month boycott of parliament sessions, protested when the parliament’s pro-Kocharian majority decided earlier in the day to hold the debate behind the closed doors. They demanded that the discussion be not only open but also be broadcast live by state television.
Majority leaders rejected the demands, saying that Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian will touch upon sensitive national security issues in his speech to the lawmakers. But deputies who attended the extraordinary session of the National Assembly claimed afterward that Sarkisian’s speech contained no classified information. They said he was asked questions only by Artarutyun deputies.
Sarkisian claimed earlier that failure to render tangible assistance to the U.S. war effort in Iraq could leave Armenia in international isolation. He also stressed the fact that neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan already have troops on the ground.
(Photolur photo: Sarkisian, right, in a rare conversation with Artarutyun's Victor Dallakian before Friday's parliament debate.)