President Robert Kocharian's administration in Armenia appears to have pushed back plans to dispatch a contingent of non-combat troops to Iraq. The planned deployment has generated determined domestic opposition, with critics of the proposal cautioning that joining the US-led coalition could endanger the small ethnic Armenian community in Iraq.
Yerevan made what looked like a formal commitment to join the Iraq mission during President Robert Kocharian's official visit to Poland in early September. The Armenian military contingent would be largely symbolic -- comprising roughly 50 military personnel, including doctors, de-mining experts and truck drivers and would serve under Polish command. Poland, a staunch US ally, leads a multinational division stationed in south-central Iraq.
Since the initial announcement, little progress has been made toward deployment. Government officials announced in September that military personnel would be dispatched before the end of the year. But observers in Yerevan now wonder whether the government can meet this deadline.
A prerequisite for deployment is an inspection visit to Iraq by an Armenian military delegation. The visit was originally slated for late September. However, Defense Ministry spokesman, Seyran Shahsuvarian, said on November 3 that such a mission has yet to take place. Shahsuvarian declined to specify a reason for the delay, and would not speculate on when the mission would occur.
Armenia's parliament, meanwhile, has not received a formal request from the government to authorize the troop deployment -- something that is required under the Armenian constitution. The National Assembly ratified earlier this year an inter-governmental agreement with Kuwait that regulates the movements of Armenian military personnel through the Gulf state, which serves as the main logistical base for all foreign troops deploying to Iraq.
Helping to explain the existing uncertainty is the fact that Kocharian's deployment plans have faced strong domestic opposition. Kocharian critics maintain that the presences of an Armenian military force in Iraq could prompt Iraqi insurgents to target the country's Armenian community, estimated at about 25,000, for reprisals. The insurgents have already captured and killed dozens of citizens of countries participating in the "coalition of the willing," or otherwise cooperating with it.
Among those opposed to the Iraq mission is Armenia's biggest opposition group, the Justice alliance, along with at least two dozen non-governmental organizations. In late September, NGO representatives issued a joint statement, cautioning that the consequences of participation could be severe. "We risk turning a community of 25,000 people into hostages," one of its signatories and a prominent environmentalist, Karine Danielian, warned. Iraqi Armenians have themselves exhorted Yerevan not to send troops. Their spiritual leader, Archbishop Avak Asadurian, expressed their concerns in separate letters to President Robert Kocharian and the Armenian parliament leadership.
Significantly, two senior army generals have recently voiced opposition to deployment plans, marking a rare instance of public questioning of government policy by members of the Armenian army's top brass. One of them, Deputy Army Chief-of-Staff Enrico Apriamov, implied that the US-led invasion of Iraq had been a mistake.
Concern for the security of the Armenian community was a major reason for the Kocharian government's refusal to back the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in early 2003. Armenia welcomed the ensuing overthrow of Saddam Hussein and publicly expressed a desire to "participate in Iraq's post-war reconstruction" shortly afterward. An Armenian liaison officer was posted at the US Central Command in Florida in late 2003 a move widely seen as a prelude to the troop dispatch.
The commitment to deployment among Kocharian allies appears to remain strong at least publicly. In recent televised remarks Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian said that while shares the critics' security concerns he believes that siding with the United States on Iraq is vital for Armenia's national interests. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, for his part, argues that the Armenian participation would be solely "humanitarian" in nature. Another Armenian leader, Parliament Speaker Artur Baghdasarian, noted on October 29 that the United States has provided more than $1.5 billion in economic assistance to Armenia since independence, hinting that Yerevan should somehow express appreciation for the American largesse.
Some pro-government media commentators say deployment should be considered by Armenians as a geopolitical necessity. They note that Armenia's neighbors, Azerbaijan and Georgia, already have hundreds of troops on the ground in Iraq. Deployment could help Armenia complement its military alliance with Russia with closer security ties with the United States and the West in general. A cosmetic Armenian military presence in Iraq, they add, is important for ensuring US neutrality in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process.
Some are skeptical that a troop contribution will produce greater political and economic support from the United States. Alexander Arzumanian, Armenia's former pro-Western foreign minister and an opponent of deployment, believes that risks far outweigh the possible geopolitical dividends. "I just don't see anything tangible we can get now in return for putting at risk the lives of a large number of Armenians," Arzumanian told EurasiaNet.
Ultimately, it may turn out that decisions made in Poland will influence Armenia's final decision on deployment. Polish leaders are pondering whether to scale down its 2,500-strong military force in Iraq, or even withdraw it altogether by the end of 2005. Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski called for a complete troop pullout in a newspaper interview last month. Although other officials in Warsaw, notably President Aleksander Kwasniewski, were quick to disavow the statement, continued Polish military presence in Iraq is now in serious doubt.
Armenia's Prime Minister Andranik Markarian had that in mind when he told reporters recently, "After clarifying some questions we may go ahead or not go ahead [with the deployment]. Everything will depend on the situation."
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.