By Hovannes Shoghikian
Armenia ended its modest military presence in Iraq on Tuesday, citing improved security and the ongoing withdrawal of a much larger Polish army contingent that has supervised Armenian troops deployed in the war-torn country.
The 46 sappers, military doctors and other non-combat personnel returned home on board a U.S. military transport plane nearly four years after Armenia joined the U.S.-led occupying force in Iraq. They and dozens of other Armenian servicemen have served there on six-month tours of duty as part of a Polish-led multinational division deployed in the Shia-populated central province of Diwaniyah.
NATO member Poland began pulling its 900 troops out of Iraq last week and is due to complete the process by the end of this month. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who came to power in October 2007, pledged a quick withdrawal from Iraq during his election campaign.
Also, in July the U.S.-led forces handed over to the Iraqis security control of Diwaniyah, which has seen occasional outbursts of intense Shiite infighting. The move reflected the improved security situation in the area south of Baghdad.
Major-General Arshaluys Paytian, the deputy chief of the Armenian army’s General Staff, said both developments were instrumental in Yerevan’s decision to follow Poland’s example. “Since our contingent served in Iraq as part of the Polish-led military detachment and since the need for peace-keeping activity in Iraq is gradually declining … our part of the peacekeeping mission is deemed to have been accomplished,” he said.
“Having achieved its objectives with honor, our contingent has returned home,” Paytian told journalists after welcoming the returning troops at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport.
The Armenian government had decided to send troops to Iraq despite strong domestic opposition resulting from concerns about the security of the country’s small Armenian community. The deployment reflected Armenia’s growing military ties with the United States. President Serzh Sarkisian visited Iraq in November 2006 in his then capacity as defense minister. Addressing the National Assembly on his return to Yerevan, he said the largely symbolic troop presence “adds to Armenia’s international standing.”
Armenia has lost no soldiers and seen only one serviceman seriously wounded in Iraq. Lieutenant Georgi Nalbandian had one of its leg amputated as a result.
Paytian said that the returning personnel will continue their service in the Armenia army’s special peacekeeping battalion that also provides troops for the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. Last June the battalion doubled to 70 the number of its servicemen stationed there.