Russia on its mind, Georgia flexes its military muscle in Iraq

Saturday, Oct 13, 2007, Page 9

The US has found an unlikely ally in the struggle to block what US commanders suspected to be Iranian weapons smuggling in this rural agricultural region southeast of Baghdad: soldiers from the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

At a time when other countries are pulling troops out, Georgia has more than doubled its troop levels in Iraq, to 2,000 soldiers from 850, and agreed to send them from the safer Green Zone in Baghdad to this area along the Iranian border. That gives Georgia, a tiny Caucasus mountains nation, the second-largest troop presence among US allies in Iraq, behind Britain.

At a ceremony marking the formal start of their mission on Monday, soldiers knelt and were sprinkled with holy water by their Eastern Orthodox priest.

But it is hardly fear of Iran that is impelling the Georgians to contribute so significantly to the war. As the US is searching for allies, so is Georgia, which aspires to NATO membership as a security guarantee against Russia.

"As soldiers here, we help the American soldiers," Corporal Georgi Zedguidze explained, peering past the sun-scorched checkpoint where he was guarding a bridge over the Tigris River. "Then America as a country will help our country."

The US supports NATO membership for Georgia, but neither nation has formally linked the deployment in Iraq with that aspiration. Georgian officials play down the idea of even an informal quid pro quo. They say that following their initial decision to send troops in 2003, the current contingent reflects a commitment to maintaining security.

"We should show everyone that we are not stepping back and running away from a difficult situation," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said on March 9 when he announced the troop buildup.

But for Georgian soldiers risking their lives to interdict what is described as the southern Shiite trafficking in bombs made with explosively formed penetrators, the sense of making a down payment on their own security is strong. The penetrators are armor-piercing weapons that are a leading cause of death for US soldiers.

A dozen or so of the Georgians said in interviews that they understood their service in Iraq as directly linked to their own security -- as a means of helping Georgia join NATO when Russia's international ambitions are stirring again.

Sergeant Koba Oshkhereli, looking out of the dusty gate of Forward Operating Base Delta at the trash-strewn streets of Kut and all the danger it holds, put it this way: "The bear was sleeping. Now the bear is awake and stomping his feet."

The Georgians are not the first former Soviet or East Bloc soldiers to arrive in Iraq with these notions. Of the 25 nations contributing troops to Iraq, 18 are in one or the other of those categories, including Poland, Ukraine and small nations like Estonia, according to a tally by the Brookings Institution in Washington. A majority are either new members of NATO or aspire to membership.

Within Georgia, opposition parties have criticized Saakashvili's use of the deployment to receive US counterinsurgency training for the army, saying it is a sign that he intends to use military force to regain control of two Russian-supported separatist regions in Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Extending NATO membership to Georgia would entangle the alliance in those two conflicts on Russia's unstable southern border and along the export routes for Caspian basin oil, in a region Russia considers within its sphere of influence. Just this year, Georgia has twice accused Russia of releasing rockets from aircraft that had flown into Georgian airspace.

Meanwhile, support for US operations in Iraq is dwindling. Foreign troops peaked at 25,600 in January 2004 and were down to 12,300 in September, according to the Brookings tally. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Monday that he would reduce the British presence by half, to 2,500 troops, by spring. The US currently has about 165,000 troops in Iraq.

Wasit, a large province south of Baghdad where Georgia is now the main troop contributor, is 98 percent Shiite but is divided in its loyalties between two groups fighting for dominance: The Badr Organization, a party with origins among Iraqi defectors to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and the group led by the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. US commanders say Iran is backing both.

The Georgians here -- a rough-hewn group of Caucasus mountain men, many of them veterans of one or another post-Soviet conflict -- carry Kalashnikov rifles with scuffed wooden stocks. The brigade has adopted a strategy based on contacts with the local population and tribal sheiks, an approach in vogue with US commanders.

The Georgian soldiers, who arrived in late August although the formal deployment began on Monday, have taken to giving medical treatment to Iraqis with non-life-threatening ailments showing up at their checkpoints. The patients are typically children with burns from kerosene lamps, common in a country whose electric service is only intermittent.

Captain Mamuka Tskrialashvili, who trained at an elite Russian paratrooper school, credited the free clinics with creating a buffer of good will among residents. But he conceded that such efforts go only so far. In the spring, on an earlier mission here, Georgians guarding a checkpoint on a bridge befriended a man who drove past often and always waved. One day, the man drove to the middle of the bridge and blew himself up, collapsing the span.


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