YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–A top US general in charge of troops in Europe–ended a two-day visit to Armenia on Wednesday–addressing expansion of US-Armenian military cooperation–and Armenian involvement in Iraq’s reconstruction.
"The United States is proud to have Armenia as a friend in the war on terrorism and–in the future–in the recovery and reconstruction of Iraq," Major-General Jeffery Kohler–director of plans and policy at the US European Command–said after talks with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and the chief of the Armenian army staff–Colonel-General Mikael Harutiunian.
"Armenia has offered to provide a truck company and medical personnel [to Iraq]. Details of that deployment are being worked out right now," Kohler told reporters before leaving Armenia–but gave no possible dates for the dispatch of the small Armenian contingent promised by the Armenian government last summer. The two sides have since been discussing practical modalities of the deployment which will be largely financed by the US government.
Armenia did not endorse the US invasion of Iraq last year–and hopes military involvement now will make Armenian companies eligible for US-funded reconstruction contracts in the war-ravaged nation. Asked to comment on this–Kohler said: "I know that the US government has offered any nation that is supporting the effort in Iraq ability to come in and assist in the reconstruction."
Armenia initially announced readiness to commit a team of medical doctors and a platoon of de-mining experts for the for the US-led occupation force in Iraq. Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian said last month that Armenian military drivers are also trained to participate in the operation.
Kohler said another purpose of his trip was to discuss further US assistance to a special peace-keeping battalion of the Armenian armed force. "The United States has already provided some equipment and training to the battalion and we are looking at ways to advance that and enable that to grow in the future," he said.
The US general–who is based in the German city of Stuttgart–praised a battalion from the platoon that joined the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo last month on Armenia’s first-ever military mission abroad. "The Armenian people should be very proud of how they perform," he said.
The US military assistance to Armenia was made possible by the suspension of the decade-long restrictions on US government aid to Azerbaijan following the September 11–2001 terrorist attacks. The US Congress has allocated about $8 million in military funding to Armenia. Most of the money will be used for upgrading communication facilities of Armenia’s Armed Forces.
Although a similar sum has been budgeted for Azerbaijan–the parity will be broken based on the Bush Administration’s 2005 proposed budget that calls for $8 million in military aid to Azerbaijan and only $2.3 million to Armenia.
US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage argued in Yerevan last week that Baku is entitled to a bigger share of the pie because it is already involved in US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Responding to Armenian protests against the aid disparity–the US assured that it will not change the shaky balance of forces in the conflict over Mountainous Karabagh.
Kohler also stressed that the US will almost certainly freeze its military cooperation with both nations should the Karabagh war resume. "Although it is not up to the US European Command–I can almost guarantee that if there is conflict from either side–our Congress will impose those sanctions again," he said.
Kohler added that he will soon pay another visit to Armenian at the request of Sarkisian. "The minister of defense has ordered me in many ways to come back and visit very soon," he said without elaborating.