On December 24, the Armenian parliament approved a symbolic deployment of Armenian military personnel as part of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. The vote was 91-23, with one abstention, after a seven-hour closed session late into the night. A last-hour switch by the opposition National Unity Party of Artashes Geghamian ensured the wide margin for passing a deeply unpopular decision, made palatable to the public by the token size of the troop commitment. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutiun, a component of the governing coalition, voted against the deployment, as did the opposition Justice bloc.
Technically, the parliament was voting to ratify Armenia’s signature on the Memorandum of Understanding with Poland — lead country of the multinational force in south-central Iraq — on the deployment of Armenian personnel with that force. Armenia is the nineteenth country to become a party to that Memorandum.
The Defense Ministry has announced that the Armenian contingent is ready for deployment as of January 5, but has not made public any specific date for actual deployment. The ministry had adumbrated that possibility with Washington as well as with the Armenian public since late 2003, but it has taken more than a year to put it into practice. The uncertainty and delays have inspired remarks that Poland might withdraw from Iraq before the Armenians ever arrive, thus rendering any Armenian deployment moot.
The parliament also approved the Defense Ministry’s concept of sending 46 personnel to Iraq for one year. The group consists of: two officers, one signals specialist, 30 drivers, ten sappers, and three medical doctors with civilian specialties. Armenian personnel are not to participate in combat, but only in humanitarian activities. They are also barred from any joint actions with Azerbaijani troops in Iraq. The Armenian group will deploy without equipment, and Yerevan will only pay the soldiers’ base salaries. Coalition forces in the theater will provide the equipment, and the United States almost all the funding for the Armenian group.
Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian is the prime mover behind this mission, not only in the military but also in the internal political arena. Sarkisian argues that Armenia cannot afford to stand aside and risk forfeiting U.S. goodwill at a time when Azerbaijan and Georgia are present with troops in Iraq (and elsewhere) to support the United States. Sarkisian’s political statements obliquely suggest that the Iraq deployment would raise Armenia’s standing in Washington, mitigate what he terms “discriminatory” treatment there, and earn a title to more favorable consideration of Armenian interests in the region. Without publicly alluding to the Karabakh issue in this context, Sarkisian has hinted that he expects Washington to lean on Turkey to open the border with Armenia, as one of the possible quid-pro-quos for the deployment to Iraq (Armenian Public Television, December 25; Noian Tapan, December 27).
Somewhat more defensively, Prime Minister Andranik Margarian argues, “Armenia’s presence [in Iraq] is primarily symbolic and for political purposes” (Haiastani Hanrapetutiun, December 25). The government in Yerevan rejects any characterization of the mission as a “military presence,” terming it instead a “humanitarian presence.” This line reflects concern for the group’s safety in the dangerous environment of Iraq, as well as seeking to mitigate the domestic political fallout from the deployment decision. Armenian public opinion surveys are showing less than 10% approval of the mission and more than 50% disapproval. Cutting across the political spectrum is the view that Armenia’s presence alongside the United States would expose Iraq’s Armenian diaspora community to reprisals from insurgents. That community, currently estimated at nearly 30,000, is concentrated almost entirely in the insurgency-plagued Sunni area.
(Mediamax, Armenpress, Noian Tapan, PanArmenian News, December 23-30).