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Armenian Defense Chief To Visit U.S.

By Ruzanna Stepanian

Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian will leave for the United States on October 23 on a five-day official visit to which will underline Armenia’s growing military ties with America.

Sarkisian is scheduled to meet with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and visit the U.S. military’s Central Command in Florida. His itinerary also includes a visit to the U.S. state of Kansas. The Kansas National Guard has established direct contacts with Armenia’s Armed Forces as part of U.S.-Armenian military cooperation.

“We will discuss ways of deepening bilateral cooperation,” Sarkisian said on Tuesday.

Sarkisian told reporters that the political situation in Armenia will not be on the agenda of his talks in Washington. “I rule out any discussion of internal political issues there,” he said. “I’m not used to discussing our domestic political issues in any foreign country. That would be kind of humiliating.”

The visit will come less than a month after the latest annual “defense consultations” that were held in Yerevan by senior U.S. and Armenian military officials. The Pentagon delegation was led by Scott Schless, the Eurasia director at Rumsfeld’s office. The two sides reportedly agreed on a plan of joint defense-related activities for next year.

They also discussed continuing U.S. military assistance to Armenia which has totaled over $20 million since 2002. The assistance is being mostly used for upgrading communication facilities of the Armenian armed forces as well as training Armenian military personnel in the U.S. Washington’s ambassador in Yerevan, John Evans, was reported after the talks to hail the “broadening and deepening” of the bilateral defense relationship.

Sarkisian’s trip will highlight Armenia’s efforts to “complement” its military alliance with Russia with closer defense cooperation with NATO and the U.S. in particular. In a speech last Friday, Sarkisian said that cooperation is now among “the guarantees of ensuring Armenia’s security.”

The Armenian defense chief, widely seen as President Robert Kocharian’s most likely successor, was interviewed by journalists after decorating some members of an Armenian army platoon that performed non-combat tasks in Iraq for six months this year. Addressing the unit, he thanked the servicemen for “keeping high the prestige of the Armenian armed forces.” He also defended Armenia’s continuing participation of the U.S.-led occupation force there.

Armenian-American lobbyists say Yerevan’s highly unpopular decision to send the small contingent to Iraq last January helped to neutralize senior Pentagon officials who question the wisdom of helping the Armenian military. The U.S. military aid is expected to make up at least $5.75 in the fiscal year 2006.

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