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Analysis: Armenians Uneasy At Proposed Iraq Deployment

  • Liz Fuller --> The Armenian government's decision to send noncombat personnel to serve with the international peacekeeping force in Iraq has met with resistance from civic groups, opposition parties, one member of the three-party ruling coalition, and some senior military officers.

Acknowledging that unease, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told parliament on 22 September that the Armenian contingent, which numbers some 50-60 medics, U.S.-trained sappers, and drivers, will be sent to Iraq only after the legislature has approved the planned deployment that he stressed is of a "humanitarian" nature.

Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 3 September that the Armenian contingent will serve in central-southern Iraq as part of a Polish-led international peacekeeping force. On 6 September, Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Polish counterpart Aleksander Kwasniewski signed a protocol formalizing the Armenian commitment. John Evans, the new U.S. ambassador to Yerevan, hailed Armenia's announced intention to send noncombat troops to Iraq, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 16 September. But some senior military officers were less than enthusiastic. Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Yurii Khachaturov told journalists on 7 September he is "not delighted" at the prospect. He expressed concern that the deployment could create future problems both for the Armenian community in Iraq and for Armenians in general.

Armenians across the political spectrum appear to share those misgivings. Parliament deputy Grigor Harutiunian of the opposition Artarutiun faction warned on 14 September of the potential danger to Armenian communities throughout the Middle East, Noyan Tapan reported. One week later, a second Artarutiun parliamentarian, Viktor Dallakian, argued that the threat could extend to Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He told parliament that "sending a medical, humanitarian or any other Armenian contingent to Iraq is dangerous for the security of the Republic of Armenia as well as for the Armenian population of Iraq." That minority is estimated to number some 20,000-25,000.
Members of the Armenian community in Iraq have signaled their opposition to the planned deployment.

Armenian civic groups issued a statement on 24 September appealing to the Armenian parliament not to approve the planned deployment. One signatory told RFE/RL that the deployment risks turning the entire Armenian minority in Iraq into hostages; a second argued that "60 people cannot cause a breakthrough in the Iraq war."

In a 25 September press release, the extraparliamentary Hayrenik front argued that the dispatch of an Armenian contingent to Iraq "will destroy the mutual trust and friendship between the Armenian and Arab peoples," Noyan Tapan reported. The press release suggested that the entire Armenian diapora could suffer "human, cultural, and economic losses" as a result.

The planned deployment may even exacerbate perceived tensions within the governing three-party coalition. On 24 September, Vahan Hovannisian, a leading member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, one of the two junior coalition partners, told parliament that as a signatory to the CIS Collective Security Treaty, Armenia should consult with Russia before sending its contingent to Iraq, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He added that as a member of the Council of Europe, Armenia should similarly take into account the opinion of those European states -- he mentioned specifically France and Germany -- that opposed the U.S. intervention in Iraq. But Hovannisian too stressed that the primary consideration should be the safety of the large Armenian communities throughout the Arab world.

Finally, members of the Armenian community in Iraq have themselves signaled their opposition to the planned deployment. Archbishop Avak Asadurian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 28 September that he has written to both President Kocharian and the Armenian parliament asking that Yerevan not send troops to Iraq lest the Armenian community there become "a target for terrorists." The wife of the priest at Baghdad's sole Armenian church said that the Arab population has already learned from media reports of the imminent Armenian deployment, and is displeased that "even friendly going to help the occupiers."

But during talks in Yerevan on 28 September with Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Ruben Shugarian, Tariq Muhammad Yahya, an official from the interim Iraqi government, praised what he termed Armenia's "balanced" policy toward Iraq and called for the restoration of bilateral economic ties, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.