Saakashvili Praises Military Exercise

Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili

The Moscow Times
July 23 2008

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili praised a joint military
training program involving more than 1,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers
at a former Soviet base, amid heightened tensions with Moscow.

The effort, involving 600 Georgian troops, shows that Georgia has
"the best trained and equipped army" in the strategic Caucasus
mountain region, Saakashvili said in comments Monday broadcast on
Georgian television.

While the exercise was planned months ago, it followed sporadic clashes
between Georgians and separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia,
breakaway regions closely tied to Russia. And it comes amid friction
over Georgia’s bid for NATO membership, viewed by Moscow as hostile.

Georgia has about 2,000 troops in Iraq — making it the third-largest
contributor to coalition forces after the United States and Britain —
but plans to end the Iraq operation by the end of this year. So far,
five Georgian soldiers have died in the conflict.

Marine Captain James Haunty, 30, commander of Lima Company, 3rd
Battalion, 25th Marines, said Friday that he was keeping an eye on
the simmering conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"I’m not concerned about anything serious happening as long as
there are U.S. troops here in Georgia," Haunty said, shortly before
50-caliber machine gun bullets began peppering a hillside at the
Vaziani training complex, about 10 kilometers east of the capital. "But
we still will monitor the situation."

The U.S. soldiers, Marines and airmen arrived in Tbilisi in mid-July
to teach combat skills to Georgian soldiers, as well as 30 troops
from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. The program, called Exercise
Immediate Response 2008, includes simulated attacks from roadside
bombs and other challenges troops might expect in Iraq, Haunty said.

Lance Corporal Jonah Salyers, 23, a Marine reservist, said it was his
first trip outside of the United States and conceded that he might
not have been able to find the republic of Georgia on a map.

"I could have found the state, I’ll tell you that," he said Friday.

Pointing to the snowcapped Caucasus Mountains to the north, Salyers
said, "Obviously, the countryside is absolutely beautiful."