By Armen Zakarian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
A plane load of 46 servicemen will leave Yerevan for Kuwait on Tuesday to begin Armenia’s controversial and largely symbolic participation in the U.S.-led occupation force in Iraq, the Defense Ministry announced on Monday.
“Our servicemen will fly to Kuwait tomorrow and then, after a few days of preparatory courses in Kuwait and adaptation to the locate climate, will proceed to the area of deployment,” Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian told RFE/RL.
Aghabekian confirmed that the contingent of non-combat troops to be deployed in a Shia-populated south-central region of Iraq will include three doctors, ten demining experts and 30 military truck drivers. Their commander Captain Garush Avetisian and two other Armenian officers will be stationed at the headquarters of a Polish-led multinational division controlling the area.
“The personnel is psychologically prepared and conscious of the mission’s importance to Armenia,” Aghabekian said.
He reiterated the government’s emphasis on the “humanitarian” character of the mission, saying that the Armenian troops will not take part in combat operations. The drivers will ship only civilian cargo on their American trucks, while the doctors will treat not only security personnel but ordinary Iraqis as well, he argued.
All of the sappers heading for Iraq were trained at a U.S.-funded demining center near Yerevan that was opened two years ago. Aghabekian said they have considerable experience in clearing areas along Armenia’s long border with Azerbaijan of landmines. “It is very good that they will apply that experience to the territory of a friendly country,” he said.
The deployment, promised by official Yerevan to Washington more than a year ago, was sanctioned by the Armenian parliament late last month, despite strong protests voiced by Armenia’s main opposition alliance and prominent public figures. They warn that the military presence could provoke insurgent attacks on Iraq’s ethnic Armenian community and make Armenia a target of Islamist terrorism.
“Nobody can now guarantee the security of the Republic of Armenia and Iraqi Armenians,” said Victor Dallakian, a senior member of the opposition Artarutyun bloc. “The defense minister confirmed this during the parliamentary discussions.”
“The defense minister admitted that the move carries some risks,” said Levon Mkrtchian, the parliamentary leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a governing party that also voted against the deployment. “But I am confident that some security measures have been taken [inside Armenia].”
“I am very skeptical on that score,” Dallakian disagreed. “I think additional measures must be taken around our strategically important facilities.”
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, a key backer of the troop dispatch, has argued that it is essential for further development of Armenia’s unfolding military cooperation with the United States.