Kazakhstan has suffered its first military casualty in Iraq. On January 9 Captain Kayrat Kudabayev died from his injuries after an explosion in Al-Suwaira, north of Wasit province. This incident marks a significant test for Kazakhstan in its ongoing commitment to peace support operations within Iraq, and its controversial political decision to deploy Central Asian peacekeepers beyond the region, as well as its continued role in supporting the global war on terrorism (Kazinform, January 10).
Captain Kudabayev, acting as part of the Kazakhstani peacekeeping battalion (KAZBAT) in Iraq, died when the ammunition he was unloading exploded. The same blast also wounded four other members of KAZBAT and killed seven Ukrainian peacekeepers.
Iraqi police had found a large cache of arms and called in support from the coalition peacekeepers to secure the site. Members of KAZBAT attended the scene to defuse the live ammunition, together with Ukrainian peacekeepers from the 72nd detached mechanized battalion. The Kazakh Ministry of Defense, fully recognizing the sensitive nature of the incident, quickly expressed its condolences to the family of the dead serviceman the following day.
Fears have run high within the Kazakh Ministry of Defense that a fatality might result in strong pressure to withdraw its peacekeepers from Iraq. After all, other nations participating in the early stages of peace support operations within Iraq withdrew after the deterioration of the security environment in the country or owing to fatalities. In spring 2004, there seemed a very imminent threat to KAZBAT continuing its work in Iraq, but U.S. military commanders took steps to increase security for KAZBAT members and generally improved their circumstances.
When the fatality finally happened, the Ministry made no attempt to downplay the incident. In fact, it promptly arranged for the remains of Captain Kudabayev to be flown from Iraq to Almaty on January 11. After a military ceremony in Kapchagai at the headquarters of KAZBAT, his corpse was sent to Astana for burial. Mira Mustafina-Kudabayeva, sister of the Kazakhstani servicemen and a renowned journalist, confirmed these details and made no criticism of the handling of the issue by the authorities.
The incident is currently being investigated by a special coalition commission, set up to examine the exact causes of the explosion, loss of life, and injuries suffered by coalition personnel. Major Nurlan Shashtybayev, commander of the Kazakhstani peacekeepers, and a staff officer serving at the staff of the coalition forces, Lieutenant-Colonel Kuanysh Amanzhanov, are representing Kazakhstan in the inquiry. Major-General Makhmud Telegusov, Kazakhstan’s national representative in the coalition staff, is overseeing the role of the Kazakh officers. The Kazakhstani Ministry will closely follow such investigations, as valuable as they are in real terms.
One of the injured KAZBAT servicemen, Yerzhan Dzhorayev, was discharged from the hospital on January 11, and this information was speedily released by the Ministry of Defense in order to show the efficiency and control it had over the situation. Clearly seeking to downplay fears and head off any resurfacing of the earlier public controversy that attended the deployment, the Ministry made clear that there was no need for the injured to return home for medical treatment. Moreover, it was soon announced that the Ministry also anticipated the rapid release of the other KAZBAT members injured in the blast.
On January 10, the Ministry of Defense announced that it believed there was no need to evacuate the wounded to receive further medical treatment in Kazakhstan. Unusually forthright about the reasons involved, Ministry officials disclosed that the wounds involved were mostly superficial, mainly shrapnel damage to the extremities. Subsequently a senior Kazakhstani staff officer visited all the members of KAZBAT in Iraq, boosting morale and seeking to reassure them about the incident. The Ministry, making sure that the death and injured personnel would not be subject to embarrassed silence, also made clear that military honors for those involved would soon be forthcoming.
The Kazakhstani staff officer also intimated that the wounded members from KAZBAT survived thanks to their superior kit and use of body armor. Had not these safety measures been in place, the level of Kazakh casualties would no doubt have been higher.
With the near daily occurrence of U.S. military casualties in the Iraqi theater, it is difficult for those beyond the United States to readily identify the significance of one fatality suffered by Kazakhstan. However, in the context of Spain and Honduras withdrawing their peacekeepers last year owing to the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, added to the impending elections and fears of further militant activity, Astana has demonstrated steadfast political commitment to the war on terror not only by sending its servicemen to Iraq, but in paying the blood price. Mukhtar Altynbayev, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Defense, will seek to ride out any criticism that may ensue, but the death of Captain Kudabayev will again test Kazakhstan’s long-term durability as a coalition partner.
(Kazinform, January 10; Interfax, January 11).