By Hrach Melkumian
After more than a year of preparations a small contingent of Armenian non-combat troops set out for Iraq Tuesday on an unpopular and risky mission that will cement Armenia’s nascent security ties with the United States.
Forty-six Armenian servicemen, among them medics, sappers and truck drivers, flew to Kuwait on board a U.S. military transport plane after an official ceremony attended by Defense Minister Serzh and senior army officers. The unit is due to undergo final preparations in the Gulf state and proceed to Iraq within two weeks.
“Our mission in Iraq is strictly humanitarian,” Sarkisian told the troops lined up on the tarmac of Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport. Their sky-blue berets, unusual for Armenian soldiers, were apparently meant to lend credence to that assertion.
“We have chosen the most necessary ways of helping the Iraqi people: medical treatment, demining and cargo shipments that pursue the noble task of saving human lives,” Sarkisian said. “The Armenian people have repeatedly seen assistance from the international community in critical times. Today is our turn to stretch a helpful hand to the Iraqi people caught in a destructive whirlwind of war.”
The U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, was also in attendance. “We applaud the decision of the government of Armenia to deploy this contingent to Iraq,” Evans told reporters.
“Armenian-American relations are in very good shape,” he said. “They are improving day by day. In particular, our security relationship is growing in a very positive way. So I think this deployment can only help to strengthen that relationship.”
Armenian military presence in Iraq will give a largely symbolic boost to the international legitimacy of the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein which was questioned by many countries. The administration of President George W. Bush has used the participation of over 30 other nations in America’s “coalition of the willing” to argue that its military action in Iraq has not been unilateral.
However, some of those nations, notably Poland, are now considering recalling their troops in the course of this year due to the deteriorating security situation there. Incidentally, the Armenian contingent will be part of a Polish-led multinational division deployed in south-central Iraq.
Both Sarkisian and Evans admitted that the decision to join the U.S.-led occupation force has caused controversy in Armenia. Critics of the deployment have warned of possible terrorist attacks on thousands of ethnic Armenians living in Iraq. Iraqi Armenian leaders have themselves pleaded with Yerevan not to send any military personnel.
In his speech Sarkisian argued that peace and stability in Iraq is important for Armenia. “Our efforts to fully integrate into the international community create moral responsibilities to make our contribution to the resolution of problems facing that community,” he said.
“We understand that the decision to send this contingent to Iraq was not an easy one,” Evans said for his part. “But it is very important for the world and this region in particular that democracy and stability should come to Iraq, the people of which have suffered so much.”
“We have great confidence in the contingent. They are well trained, they are well prepared, they have a good spirit,” the U.S. envoy added.
The mood among the Armenian servicemen bound for Iraq appeared remarkably festive. Some of them played folk music and danced to its tunes as they waited for the arrival of the U.S. C-130 Hercules plane.
Their family members, allowed to attend the ceremony, also sounded optimistic. But tears in some of the relatives’ eyes betrayed deep anxiety for the safety of their loved ones. “We are wishing them a nice trip,” said one woman. “Let Armenia’s army help other countries in trouble.”
The troops are to serve in Iraq for six months and be replaced by another Armenian contingent. Each serviceman will get at least $1,000 for every month spent there, a princely sum by Armenian standards.
“Let foreigners see that while we are a small nation, we can be useful and combat-ready everywhere,” Major Hamlet Hovakimian, commander of the transportation unit, told RFE/RL. “We are not going to attack anyone. We would only defend ourselves in case of emergency.”