Despite widespread popular opposition, Armenia has dispatched troops to Iraq on a humanitarian mission apparently designed to strengthen the South Caucasus state's ties with the United States.
Forty-six troops including 30 truck drivers, 10 bomb detonation experts, three doctors and three officers will serve under Polish command in the Shiite city of Karbala and the nearby town of al-Hila. The troops could serve in Iraq for up to a year and would only carry out humanitarian operations.
"This day is very important for Armenian armed forces. We cannot stay away from international processes geared toward promoting stability and peace in our region, particularly in Iraq," Defense Minister Serge Sarkissian stated at a January 18 departure ceremony in Yerevan.
The decision to send the platoon comes amidst rising concerns that Armenia may lose out to Azerbaijan, and Georgia, in the competition for US assistance. The Bush Administration's proposed budget for 2005 would have originally granted $6 million more in military aid to Azerbaijan than to Armenia. Congress, under pressure from the influential US Armenian diaspora, later restored the traditional parity in military assistance to the two countries with an allocation of $5 million to each for 2005.
In a statement to reporters in December about the deployment of Armenian troops, Sarkissian touched on that influence, stating that "After the Armenian military specialists have been sent to Iraq, international organizations and states that are involved in combating terrorism will take a more objective attitude to all three South Caucasus states . . . Armenia cannot have stayed aside from actions by other states that are aimed at peace and stability, and at combating terrorism," Interfax reported.
Yerevan played a waiting game during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, neither explicitly supporting nor opposing the operation. But now, with other Commonwealth of Independent States members contributing to the US-led reconstruction campaign, President Robert Kocharian's government has no wish to be left behind. Both of Armenia's neighbors in the Caucasus outrank it for troop deployments to Iraq. Azerbaijan has committed 150 troops, and Georgia recently increased projected troop numbers to 850, the highest number for the Caucasus. At the same time, the country is benefiting from an extensive US military training program.
Nonetheless, opposition to the deployment, even within the defense ministry, appears to run strong. "I am not delighted with the decision to send our troops there and the war in general," the English-language weekly ArmeniaNow quoted Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Khachaturov as saying after the Armenian National Assembly's December 24 vote to dispatch troops. "Because of that the Armenian community [in Iraq] and Armenians in general could have problems in the future."
Parliament's decision to proceed with the troop deployment was fiercely opposed by opposition parties and led to an alliance between the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnakcutyun, a member of the ruling coalition, and Armenia's main opposition bloc, Adrarutyn (Justice). Opposition parties, which have been boycotting the National Assembly for nearly 11 months, came to parliament for an eight-hour, closed-door debate on the question. In the end, 91 deputies voted in favor of the proposal with 23 against and one abstention.
The consequences of Armenian troops in Iraq for the Armenian diaspora there spurred much of the criticism. Fear of retaliatory actions by Islamic terrorist groups prompted Iraq's 20,000-member Armenian community, in fact, to ask Yerevan not to send the troops. In August 2004, a Baghdad Armenian Apostolic church was attacked as part of a wave of assaults on Iraqi Christians that left 11 people dead.
"The situation is very tense now," Father Garegin, a leader of Iraq's Armenian religious community, told the news agency Yekir.am. "People do not leave their houses because they are scared. They can't even go to church . . . Our children can't go to school."
Any sign that it has discounted the concerns of a diaspora group could put the government in an awkward situation given emigres' investment in and economic support for Armenia in recent years. To show that it understands the Iraqi group's concerns, the government has described the deployment as a strictly humanitarian mission. Commenting on parliament's decision, Prime Minister Andranik Margarian told the newspaper Haiastani Hanrapetutiun on December 25 that "Armenia's presence is primarily symbolic and for political purposes."
Public opinion has reflected this unease. A recent poll conducted by the Armenian Center for National and International Studies reported that 70.5 percent of Armenians opposed the deployment of troops to Iraq. Only 15.6 percent, the poll found, supported the move.
Samvel Martirosyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.