By Astghik Bedevian and Karine Kalantarian
The National Assembly debated on Tuesday a government request to extend by another year the presence of a small contingent of Armenian troops in Iraq which Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian said is important for Armenia’s ties with the United States.
Yerevan sent 46 servicemen -- most of them doctors, demining experts and military truck drivers -- to south-central Iraq nearly two years ago despite strong domestic opposition. The non-combat unit serves in the Shia-populated area as part of a Polish-led multinational division. Its volunteer personnel is rotated once in every six months.
Sarkisian underlined the mission’s significance for his government when visited Iraq last month to inspect the Armenian contingent and meet the U.S. military command on the ground. Addressing the parliament on Tuesday, he said the largely symbolic troop presence “adds to Armenia’s international standing and strengthens the trust in the Armenian armed forces.”
Sarkisian warned that failure to extend it would make Armenia an “unreliable partner” in the eyes of the United States. “Why should we spoil those relations without any reason?” he told lawmakers opposed to Armenia’s continued participation in the U.S.-led occupation force.
The opponents include the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), a junior partner in the governing coalition. “We have large Armenian communities in various Arab countries, and their perception of the actions taken by the U.S. government vis-à-vis Iraq is not unequivocal,” said Armen Rustamian, a senior Dashnaktsutyun lawmaker.
One of those countries, Syria, has been very critical of the U.S. invasion of its eastern neighbor. The Syrian charge d’affaires in Yerevan, Mukhlis Faraun, indicated that Damascus is less than happy with the Armenian military presence alongside U.S. troops. “As a Syrian and an Arab, I would not like to see Armenian soldiers in Iraq,” he told reporters.
Faraun noted at the same time that he is glad Armenian servicemen have not been involved in any combat operations. “I am 100 percent certain that Armenian soldiers serving in Iraq will not kill any Iraqi,” he said.
Also reaffirming its opposition to the Iraq mission was the main opposition Artarutyun (Justice) alliance. But virtually all other parliament factions, notably the governing Republican Party, will almost certainly vote to allow the government to keep the troops in Iraq for at least one more year. The parliament vote is scheduled for Wednesday.