Rivals Azerbaijan and Armenia join to fight for US favor in Iraq

Agence France Presse — English
January 20, 2005 Thursday 4:59 AM GMT

Rivals Azerbaijan and Armenia join to fight for US favor in Iraq

by Simon Ostrovsky

BAKU

At home, the armies of Azerbaijan and Armenia only see each other
through gun sights pointed across one of the world’s deadliest
cease-fire lines. But today in Iraq, the two are fighting on the same
side for a common cause: American friendship.

This week, a group of 46 Armenian soldiers joined the US-led
coalition in Iraq which since 2004 has included a contingent of 100
peacekeepers from Armenia’s longtime foe Azerbaijan.

And although the stated aims of both nation’s troop deployments are
to help stabilize the situation in Iraq and protect holy sites there,
observers say the bitter rivals are really on a mission to outdo each
other in front of Uncle Sam.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have much to gain from favorable
relations with the United States, but each also has much to lose in
their rival quests to pull international opinion over the disputed
Nagorno-Karabakh region in their favor.

The two republics waged a bloody war over Karabakh — an ethnic
Armenian enclave internationally recognized to be within Azerbaijan
— in the early 1990s that began prior to the breakup of the Soviet
Union and continued after both acquired national independence.

The war ended in 1994 with Armenia in control of the territory and
seven surrounding regions, 30,000 people dead, some two million
people displaced and Karabakh’s status still unsettled.

Since then it has been a war of words between the two nations as they
navigate the choppy diplomatic waters between their former overlord
Russia and the United States, which in the last two years has gained
greater influence in parts of the former Soviet Union.

“Armenia sent its troops into Iraq because America told them ‘you’re
either with us or you’re a Yanukovich,” Azerbaijan’s former foreign
minister Tofik Zulfuqarov told AFP, referring to the pro-Russia
candidate who lost Ukraine’s presidential election to a pro-Western
liberal last month.

After leaders without Moscow’s support took power in Georgia’s
breakaway region Abkhazia this month, Ukraine in December and Georgia
itself a year earlier, observers say Armenia’s President Robert
Kocharyan has begun to shift allegiances westwards from Moscow in an
effort to keep power.

“The (Iraq) issue has become a dividing line: Either we continue with
pro-Russian policies or we get out from under that zone of
influence,” Agasi Enkoyan, a political analyst in Yerevan told AFP.

As for Azerbaijan, “we are enemies… but that doesn’t preclude our
fighting from the same side of the front line in a third country,”
Enkoyan said.

A military analyst in Baku said both nations’ armed forces can
benefit from the experience they get as peacekeepers in Iraq if a
settlement is ever reached over Karabakh.

“One day they will have to understand the difference between a front
line and a national border. Today the military does not have that
understanding,” said Azad Isazade.

But Armenians and Azeris so far have not had a very good track record
of post-war cooperation Isazade warned, saying he fears high-emotions
could lead to new Azeri-Armenian violence even in faraway Iraq.

Both countries are members of NATO’s partnership for peace program
but war games that were planned to be held in Azerbaijan last year
had to be canceled when the Azeri public protested against the
participation of Armenian officers.

In Hungary, an Azeri officer is on trial for the 2004 hotel room
axe-murder of an Armenian officer at a NATO language-training course
in Budapest.

“In that situation they didn’t have guns, in Iraq they will,” said
Isazade. “These aren’t ecologists at a seminar, these are military
people.”

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