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South Caucasus: Envoys Offer Varying Support For Iraq Reconstruction

By Sterling Wright

Ambassadors to the United States from the South Caucasus countries recently participated in a panel discussion in Washington. The envoys discussed regional issues following the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Washington, 3 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ambassadors to the United States from Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan say their countries are offering varying degrees of support to Iraqi postwar-reconstruction efforts.

Participating in a recent panel discussion in Washington, the envoys met to discuss the effects of the war on the South Caucasus and to articulate their governments' policies toward the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

The panel was sponsored by the Caucasus Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank, in conjunction with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Both Georgia and Azerbaijan openly supported the U.S. decision to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, but the ambassadors said different considerations motivated their countries' involvement.

Ambassador Levan Mikheladze from Georgia said his country had a "moral and political obligation" to join the coalition. Georgia is one of the largest recipients of U.S. economic aid in the region and, according to Mikheladze, seeks even stronger ties to Washington. "Full integration into the Euro-Atlantic structures represents one of the key strategic goals for Georgia, and we believe that its completion cannot be accelerated without participation in the coalition of the willing," Mikheladze said.

He stressed that his government welcomes all forms of sustained U.S. involvement in Georgia and added that the country is prepared to send military and police troops to Iraq, as well as participate in reconstruction activities. He also said Georgia plans to open an embassy in Baghdad once an Iraqi government is in place.

Mikheladze said a failure by international bodies during the last decade to address important security concerns in Georgia has made the U.S. the only "credible" vehicle for establishing peace in the region.

Azerbaijani Ambassador Hafiz Pashaev expressed "deep regret" over the absence of unity on the United Nations Security Council concerning Iraq. "Azerbaijan never lost its belief that the operation in Iraq would promote the United Nation's role in maintaining international peace and security," Pashaev said.

Pashaev said Azerbaijan -- a secular, predominately Shia Muslim country -- is in a "precarious position" but has always endorsed the rule of international law.

Pashaev said, "Participation in the coalition was a logical continuation of our country's established foreign policy." Azerbaijan also contributed to the campaigns in Kosovo and Afghanistan and the follow-up peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan.

Pashaev said outrage at the oppression of Iraqi Shia, belief that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction undermined regional stability, and conviction that Iraq should adhere to all UN resolutions formed the basis for Azerbaijan's involvement in the campaign against Iraq.

He said Azerbaijan will send 150 peacekeeping troops to Karbala and Al-Najaf in Iraq, the sites of Shia's holiest shrines.

Armenian Ambassador Arman Kirakossian said his government fully endorsed UN Resolution 1441 and the disarmament of Iraq but said overt support for the U.S.-led coalition could have had tragic consequences for the 15,000 to 30,000 Armenians living and working in Iraq.

"The government of Armenia is, of course, concerned about ethnic Armenians living in foreign countries. Therefore, we have always had to calibrate our public position vis-a-vis the international effort against the Saddam regime," Kirakossian said.

Kirakossian said public awareness of his country's partnership with the United States is not a goal of the Armenian government but that Armenia is prepared to assist in postwar Iraq "to the degree that it is possible." He said cooperation with the United States since the terror attacks of 11 September 2001 has intensified.

He also said his government is not concerned by U.S. military involvement with Georgia and Azerbaijan. The ambassador said, "Relations with the U.S. are based on solid and shared values...and [Armenia] recognizes the U.S. has legitimate strategic and economic interests in the region."

Kirakossian added that Armenia anticipates continuing economic relations with Iraq and hopes the U.S. will be able to address the problems that have arisen since the fall of Hussein's regime.

Other regional issues also were addressed.

Ambassador Mikheladze said Georgia's involvement in the U.S.-led coalition was risky and may further destabilize the country's already volatile relations with Russia. "Changes in Iraq will play a key role in dismantling the old world order and establishing a new one. We may be witnessing the creation of a new security system, new military alliances, as well as new approaches to the solution of existing conflicts in the region," he said.

He said Moscow is afraid of losing influence in the region and sees Georgia's relationship with the U.S. as a direct threat. Despite U.S. diplomatic involvement, he said Russian military bases continue to operate on Georgian territory.

Additionally, Mikheladze said Moscow holds a "monopoly" on the secessionist peace process in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and that international intervention is needed or those territories risk being integrated into the Russian Federation.

Mikheladze added that U.S. counterterrorism assistance has prevented radical Islamic fighters from infiltrating the Pankisi region but that the Chechen conflict has spilled over and that separatist fighters are "disappearing" into the local populace.

Ambassador Pashaev of Azerbaijan pointed out that "no conflict should be forgotten" by the international community. "In general, the policy against terror and any form of oppression in the modern world dictates that the international community be very aware of and attentive to any conflict," he said.

Armenian Ambassador Kirakossian added that Turkey's continued blockade of Armenia and its disruption of railroad traffic between Central Asia and the Near East continue to destabilize Armenia's economy. As long as the Turkish-Armenian border remains closed, he does not think that stabilization in Iraq will seriously benefit the South Caucasus.

Nevertheless, Kirakossian said he remains optimistic for the future. "The stabilization and democratization of Iraq, progress in the Middle East peace process, the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and Turkey's positive engagement in the South Caucasus are plausible, not merely theoretical, constructs. And they can unlock the potential of greater cooperation between the countries of the South Caucasus and the Middle East," he said.