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Armenia bucks the trend and sends troops to Iraq, to the chagrin of Iraq's Armenian community

YEREVAN, Armenia--Other countries may be pulling their troops out or thinking of doing so, but there is one country--Armenia--that is doing the reverse: On 18 January, Armenia sent troops to Iraq for the first time.

Yerevan's small contingent of 46 noncombat servicemen will operate in the Shiite city of Karbala and the nearby town of al-Hila in a multinational division headed by Poland--which is itself cutting its number of troops in Iraq and thinking of pulling them out entirely. Most of the Armenian servicemen will drive military trucks, while 10 sappers will bring experience gained from de-mining Armenia's border with Azerbaijan after the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, a former part of Soviet Azerbaijan that is now controlled by ethnic Armenians.

The unit may be small, the mission strictly "humanitarian," and the deployment long in the offing (Yerevan promised Washington a year ago that it would deploy troops), but the decision has spurred significant controversy in a country that is not only close to the conflict, but also has a sizable diaspora within Iraq.

The results of a Vox Populi opinion poll published on 12 January showed that 60 percent of Armenians are against sending troops to Iraq, and only 6 percent are in favor.

Those divisions were reflected in the parliament when, on 24 December, it voted in favor of the deployment. The leading opposition alliance, Artarutyun, broke a 10-month boycott of the parliament to vote and found that it was joined in opposition by a member of the three-party ruling coalition, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Party (Dashnaktstyun). The motion was carried by 91 votes to 23.

Even the deputy defense minister, Yuri Khachaturov, afterwards went on record as saying, "I am not delighted with the decision to send our troops there or with the war in general."

"If Armenian servicemen were sent to Karabakh to protect their home country, I would understand this," said one of the leaders of the Artarutyun bloc, Aram Sargssian, "but I cannot understand seeing off Armenian servicemen with fanfare to a country that is in a war for its independence, its own interests."

While that that statement highlights deeper questions about the United States' campaign in Iraq, the main concern for Artarutyun and Khachaturov--and for much of the public--is the possible threat to the community of 20,000 to 28,000 Armenians living in Iraq.

In August, an Armenian church was one of five churches bombed in a wave of attacks on Iraq's Christian community. Two Armenian churches were among the targets in subsequent attacks in October, November, and December. At the same time the Armenian troops were deployed, the dangers for Christians were highlighted by the 17 January abduction of Basile Georges Casmoussa, the Roman Catholic archbishop in Mosul. (He has since been released.)

The fear is that the deployment will add fuel to the flames. Iraq's Armenian community itself has been urging the Armenian government not to send troops to Iraq, believing it will immediately result in attacks on Iraqi Armenians. Artarutyun's Sargssian believes the effects of the deployment are already apparent. "In the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Syria, anti-Armenian sentiment is already emerging," he told the daily Aravot on 21 January.

Similar concerns were factors in Yerevan's initial decision to remain on the sidelines after the 2003 invasion. The government came out neither in explicit support of nor opposition to the U.S.-led war.

WHY THE CHANGE?

Ministers have been quite open in explaining why the government has changed its position. After the parliamentary vote, Prime Minister Andranik Margarian told the newspaper Haiastani Hanrapetutiun that "Armenia's presence is primarily symbolic and for political purposes." The major supporter of the move, Defense Minister Serzh Sargssian, has argued that the deployment is needed if Armenia is to develop its military cooperation with the United States.

It is also a preventative measure designed to avoid isolation, as Azerbaijan and Georgia already have troops in Iraq.

While seeking to maximize the geopolitical benefits, the government has sought to reassure the Armenian public, stressing repeatedly that the deployment is "humanitarian" in character.

Washington-based security analyst Richard Giragosian believes the government's calculations are accurate and that the deployment "offers significant geopolitical gains for Armenia."

"One lesson for tiny Armenia from [11 September 2001] was the need to seize the new opportunities while minimizing the risks from such a dynamic shift in international security. In the wake of 9/11, for example, Azerbaijan was able to exploit and exaggerate its role or entry in the war on terrorism to a much greater and more effective degree than Armenia."

The situation was the same prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "Armenia was portrayed as a reluctant or even resistant nation," Giragosian says. "In U.S. eyes at that time, the misperceptions of Armenian policy and the rather inaccurate image of Azerbaijan as the new loyal ally were only strengthened by the twin perceptions of Armenia as little more than a Russian vassal or garrison state, or as a weak, isolated state thoroughly controlled by its Russian 'ally.'"

"Given the participation of its neighbors, Armenia cannot afford to abstain from strategic engagement" such as involvement in Iraq, Giragosian believes.

However, Armenia's contingent will remain the smallest from the Caucasus. Azerbaijan has 150 troops in Iraq, and Georgia plans to increase its force to 850. The Armenian contingent's tour of service is six months. It is unclear whether the mission would continue after that.

Though primarily a gesture in relations with the United States, the deployment "conforms to the overall trajectory of Armenian military strategy" and to Armenia's broader balancing act, Giragosian argues. "Armenia has both participated in Russian-led war games and training simulations within the Collective Security Treaty Organization as well as with the U.S. and other Western states within the NATO Partnership for Peace program," says Giragosian.

Armenia's borders continue to be patrolled by Russian troops, and it retains very close political, economic, and military ties with Moscow.

More generally, Giragosian argues that Armenia's engagement with both Russia and NATO and its deployment of troops to Kosovo, for example, fits within a concerted drive to professionalize its army.

WHAT NOW FOR THE ARMENIAN COMMUNITY?

But are the Armenian Iraqis being made sacrificial lambs in Armenia's broader geopolitical interests? Giragosian believes that the deployment "poses no real or new risk to the Armenians in Iraq."

He contends that the Armenian community "has already been living in a state of insecurity and vulnerability, which will be neither exacerbated nor extinguished by this deployment." He sees "the record of attacks, violence and intimidation [as] all part of a broader campaign by insurgents against the ethnic Christian minorities of Iraq" and that "the deployment is both far too small and much too marginal to result in any serious or specific anti-Armenian strategy by the insurgents."

In recent decades, Armenians have found themselves in the crossfire of another civil war in a heavily Muslim country, Lebanon. There, the Armenian minority's pursuit and policy of neutrality generally protected it, Giragosian says. But the situation in Iraq is nothing like the civil war in Lebanon, he believes.

"The Armenians of Iraq, like much of the ordinary Iraqi population, face a reality marked by a faceless insurgency, with no choice or option of abstaining from the conflict," Giragosian says.

Nor is the longer-term outlook good for the Armenian community. "The future of Iraq stands between becoming a state under siege or a failed state, neither of which offers much hope for a non-Arab, non-Muslim minority," Giragosian says.

(TOL 24.i.05)

 
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