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Georgia Boosts Iraq Deployment

President hopes extra deployment will help secure NATO membership.
By Koba Liklikadze
While other nations are looking to pull out of the world’s most dangerous country, Georgia, which already has 850 peacekeepers in Iraq, plans to more than double its contingent there.

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili announced the plans in early March, although it is now reported he had made the decision last July at a meeting with President George Bush in the White House.

“We want to show to the world that Georgians never run from anything,” he said. “Even in the most difficult situation, we will maintain our presence. Moreover, we will increase our presence in Iraq in the coming year, which is going to be as crucial period for operations.”

Deputy chief of the Georgian general staff Vladimir Chachibaia said the Georgian brigade would be deployed in the northern Iraqi town of Al-Kut.

“The Georgians will have their own area of activity,” he said. “Units from around nine countries will be subordinate to them. A total of 2,000 troops will study the territory, carrying out the same tasks as those entrusted to other countries.”

For the last two years, American instructors have been training Georgian recruits to face the challenges of the Iraq war-zone.

On April 20, a graduation ceremony was held at the Krtsanisi training centre outside Tbilisi for soldiers completing the programme called Sustaining Stability, which is estimated to have cost 55 million US dollars.

A brigade will be selected from these graduates to go to Al-Kut in the summer. Craig Jones, who supervised the drilling, praised the Georgian troops.

“The 10 months we’ve been here, working with Georgian soldiers was a real pleasure,” he said. “Your soldiers are disciplined, diligent and learn things quickly. They’ve acquired the experience they are going to need to succeed in Iraq.”

Being prepared to go to Iraq with a peacekeeping mission was an obligatory condition for all Georgian recruits, who joined the American programme and signed a three-year contract with the Georgian state.

Corporal Mamuka Bandzeladze, who lives in Sachkhere, was one of those who signed up four months ago.

“My family has reconciled itself to my decision,” he said. “There was no other way. Besides, no one says this is going to be dangerous. They’ve got used to the idea. They know I will go anyway and will give me their blessing. It’s a pity I’m going to establish peace in Iraq and not Abkhazia. But an order cannot be countered, and a soldier must carry it out in any situation.”

Georgia has contributed to the coalition forces in Iraq since August 2003. Its original contingent consisted of 79 troops. Nowadays, a country with a population of only five million people is the fourth largest contributor of troops to Iraq after the US, Great Britain and South Korea.

Shalva Pichkhadze, who heads the organisation Georgia in NATO, said that by increasing its presence in Iraq, President Saakashvili wanted to prove its loyalty to Washington, which is the main lobbyist for Georgia’s ambitions to become a member of NATO.

“We are showing them that if we are admitted to NATO, they will have a really faithful ally,” he said. “We say, ‘We will be your ally and will do whatever we can for you, and you, in your turn, help us join NATO.’ Maybe, in this way we can compensate for what we are failing to do inside the country.”

Georgia is already reaping rewards in Washington. A month ago, the US Congress passed a bill providing Georgia with 10 million dollars to speed up its NATO accession.

“We are going to make a very significant contribution both in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said one of the leaders of the Georgian parliament’s pro-governmental majority Giga Bokeria. “First of all, because it meets the interests of our allies, and secondly because it meets the interests of all of civilised humanity. Georgia always takes the side of civilization, especially at a time when it stands opposed to barbarism.”

However, some Georgian experts believe the fight against “barbarism” is fraught with risks.

“Despite the fact the Georgian contingent has not lost a single soldier in the four years it’s been deployed in Iraq, the increase of the Georgian presence will cause the risk to grow too,” said military expert Irakly Aladashvili.

“The Georgian contingent will move from the town of Bakub and the Baghdad Green Zone to the town of Al Kut, which is part of the so-called ‘Red Zone’,” he said. “This will make the Georgian soldiers’ mission much more dangerous. In addition, once it’s increased, the contingent will become a more obvious target for terrorists.”

Georgian officer Giorgy Shengelia, who was in command of a Georgian battalion stationed in Iraq two years ago, and works now in an American security firm there, told IWPR in a telephone interview to IWPR that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated from several years ago.

“I think that today the situation is more difficult than in 2005,” he said. “But we all understand that this is necessary for us to be admitted to NATO and to gain military experience that the Georgian soldiers will be able to apply at other times as well.”

Opposition members in the Georgian parliament have criticised more the details of the new deployment than the presence of the contingent itself.

Parliament is currently debating a proposed boost of the military budget by 400 million laris (240 million dollars) to almost one billion laris to cover the extra deployment – making military spending one quarter of the entire government budget.

Bezhan Gunava of the opposition party Democratic Front told IWPR, “I have a lot of questions to ask the government. For instance, why is the contingent being increased to 2,000 troops and what’s the reason for moving the Georgian division from the Green Zone to the more dangerous red one?”

The opposition Conservative Party and New Rights Party both support the deployment of Georgian troops in Iraq, but not in such large numbers.

Mamuka Katsitadze of the New Rights party called the decision “political coquetry” by Saakashvili.

“I think that our young, newly formed and still not very battle-worthy army should not be used as cannon fodder and have its blood spilled somewhere on the border with Iran,” said Kakha Kukava of the Conservative Party. “We have enough of our own problems.”

Ordinary people appear to share this view. In a brief survey on Tbilisi’s streets, most respondents said the government had ignored public opinion in its decision.

“This is very dangerous,” said Nino, 28. “A close friend of mine went there, and I’m very afraid for him. I don’t want anyone to go there.”

“Georgian young men should not go there and expose themselves to danger just for the sake of earning some money,” said a pensioner named Otari, who lives in Tbilisi. “It would be better if they took care of their own homeland. The risk is great, and our boys may be killed if something bad happens. The chances of their coming back safe and sound are small.”

Koba Liklikadze is a military commentator with Radio Liberty in Tbilisi.

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