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Georgia: More Troops, More Important Role In Iraq

U.S.-trained Georgian troops at a military airport outside Tbilisi (epa) July 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In a few months, Corporal Mamuka Bandzeladze will be patrolling the border between Iran and Iraq.

He is one of the 1,200 extra troops that Georgia is sending to Iraq to join the U.S.-led coalition. When the troops are fully deployed, Georgia will have the third-largest number of troops in Iraq, after the United States and the United Kingdom.

"My family has reconciled itself to my decision.... They know I will go anyway and will give me their blessing," Bandzeladze says.

"It's a pity I'm going out to establish peace in Iraq, and not Abkhazia. But an order cannot be countered, and a soldier must carry it out in any situation."

Bandzeladze, like all the recruits headed for Iraq, received training from U.S. forces at a base outside the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

To The Frontline

But it isn't just the number of troops that has been boosted, but also their role.

Around 800 Georgian troops have been serving in Iraq since 2004, but, for the most part, not in a frontline role.

But the new Georgian troops will take on a more high-profile responsibility: patrolling the border with Iran to stop the smuggling of weapons and other goods.

RFE/RL military analyst Koba Liklikadze says it will be a challenging operation.

"Before, Georgian units just participated in the control of checkpoints and organization, in Ba'qubah, and in the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad," Liklikadze says.

"What used to be a traditionally quiet role, such as logistics supply, or self-protection, those tasks are now becoming increasingly dangerous."

"Now the contribution is very significant from Georgian soldiers [and] it's a very new and significant challenge for Georgian soldiers. They will lead this operation in this very huge area. "

For the most part, only U.S. and British forces in the coalition have taken part in combat operations.

Troops from other countries tend to be deployed in support roles, providing security or logistics. Countries often send troops for specialized tasks like engineering, bomb disposal, or providing field hospitals.

To date, no Georgian soldiers have been killed in Iraq and only a few have been wounded. But Liklikadze says the new mission along the Iran-Iraq border carries a much higher risk.

New Situation On The Ground

Chris Parker, a retired British lieutenant colonel who served as the chief of staff for the British 7th Armored Division in Iraq, says the enhanced role of Georgian troops could be a sign of things to come.

"On the political level, I think [the United States and United Kingdom] will be delighted to see more aggressive posture -- in terms of determination to get into the more dangerous roles -- from other coalition members," Parker says.

"Of course that helps on the political level to allay any fears of their own populace, in America or Britain, who perceive that their own countries are taking all the hard work and other countries less so."

Contributing troops to Iraq now means something more than it did at the war's outset.

Parker, who is now a program leader at the U.K.-based Centre for Defense and International Security Studies, says the situation on the ground has changed significantly.

"What used to be a traditionally quiet role, such as logistics supply, or self-protection -- and a military force normally needs about one-third for self-protection, be that mobile in convoys, or in static bases -- those tasks are now becoming increasingly dangerous," Parker says.

"Whereas before we'd expect the rear area of operations or a logistics base to be a fairly quiet area, now, in a modern battlefield like Iraq, it is just as dangerous as the so-called front line, and just as liable to attack."

Bucking The Trend

By sending more troops, Georgia is also going against a recent trend of countries leaving the U.S.-led multinational force.

The coalition currently comprises fewer countries than it did at the time of the invasion in March 2003. Then, there were 49 countries contributing troops, including Australia, Spain, Romania, and Tonga.

President Saakashvili wants Georgia to join NATO (official photo)

Now, 25 countries make up the U.S.-led coalition, with 92 percent of the troops coming from the United States. Some countries pulled out troops when their mandates expired. Others, facing political pressure at home or a change in government, pulled their forces out early.

By proving its commitment to the U.S.-led coalition, analysts say Western-leaning Georgia is banking on continued U.S. support for its bid to join NATO.

The head of the organization Georgia In NATO, Shalva Pichkhadze, says Tbilisi is hoping its Iraq efforts will boost its standing at home and abroad, and detract attention from its slow progress on social and political domestic reforms.

"We are showing them that if we are admitted to NATO, they will have a really faithful ally. We are saying, 'We will be your ally and will do whatever we can for you, and you, in turn, can help us join NATO.' Maybe, in this way, we can compensate for what we are failing to do inside the country," Pichkhadze says.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has said he hopes that Georgia can advance in 2007 to a Membership Action Plan, which is the final stage before a formal invitation to join the alliance.

But it won't be easy for Georgia, given continued tensions with its two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as Russia's opposition to one of its neighbors joining the Western military alliance.

At the moment, there is broad political support in Georgia for upping the number of troops.

But if troops start coming home in body bags, that will be a much bigger test of the country's resolve.

(RFE/RL's Georgian Service correspondent Koba Liklikadze contributed to this story.)

Troops In Iraq

Troops In Iraq

Armenia: Around 50 troops, comprising transportation, engineering, and medical units.

Azerbaijan: 88 troops, mostly infantry soldiers guarding the Hadithah dam.

Bosnia-Herzegovina: 37 troops, comprising munitions and demining units.

Georgia: Around 2,000 troops, mostly involved in combatting weapons smuggling.

Kazakhstan: 29 troops, mostly ordnance-disposal engineers.

Macedonia: 33 troops, mostly special forces.

Moldova: 11 troops, comprising demining and ordnance-disposal specialists.

Romania: Around 600 troops, comprising intelligence, security, and training units.

(Note: Only those countries from RFE/RL's broadcast region are listed.)

(Sources: RFE/RL, Reuters,

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