Georgia Boosts Troop Commitment to Iraq Coalition

Many countries that sent soldiers to Iraq when the U.S. led an invasion to oust Saddam Hussein three years ago have since pulled some or all of their troops out. But not the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which has actually increased its troop commitment.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Many of America's traditional allies famously refused to send soldiers to the war in Iraq. Some allies that did send troops, Ukraine and Philippines, have them back home now because the war is unpopular.

But one country, Georgia, has enthusiastically increased its troop levels. From the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, NPR's Lawrence Sheets reports.

LAWRENCE SHEETS reporting:

Georgia's involvement in Iraq is large for a small country where 60 percent of the population lives in poverty. With 850 troops on the ground, Georgia now has the second largest contingent per capita in Iraq, behind only the U.S.

Washington has poured more than a billion dollars worth of aid, including military help, into Georgia since the Soviet collapse. But aside from gratitude and the Georgian leadership's position that the Iraq War is a just one, there is also plain pragmatism. For the U.S., Georgia is a rare case of an enthusiastic contributor to the Iraq War.

But for Georgia, sending its soldiers to Iraq is a way to get its young army real warzone experience, and to prepare Georgia's military to eventually re-conquer territories lost to separatist movements. At an old Soviet army base, tucked along mountain foothills here, American Marines, like Staff Sergeant Roy Brady, Jr., train the Georgians. Many of them will end up in Iraq.

(Soundbite of explosion and soldiers)

Staff Sergeant ROY BRADY (U.S. Marine Corps.): Okay. Your orders are to go in there and kill everybody in the ambush, if you get hit by an ambush.

SHEETS: Second Lieutenant Taylor Prince is teaching the Georgians to fire rocket-propelled grenades. He says some the Georgians, even supposedly experienced ones, have great difficulty firing even Kalashnikov AKM rifles.

Second Lieutenant TAYLOR PRINCE (U.S. Marine Corps.): Believe it or not, some of their senior officers, they come out here and fire their own, the AKM's in their hole net and it's all over the place, hitting five, ten feet in front. And they're, oh, I've been soldiers for many years. And you're finding that no, they can't operate. Back home, yeah. That's, you would never see that. But here...

(Soundbite of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades)

SHEETS: Marine's Staff Sergeant Jonathan Moore says the U.S. training helps Georgia to solve practical needs.

Staff Sergeant JONATHAN MOORE (U.S. Marine Corps): Prior to this program, a lot of these guys never fired more than three rounds of regular ammunition for their rifles per year; simply because it wasn't in the budget. We come out here and we provide everything for them, from the boots on their feet, to weapons, to ammunition. So that when they're done with this program they're fully trained and a professional unit.

SHEETS: Among other duties, Georgians are guarding the Green Zone in Baghdad. Deputy Defense Minister Mamuka Kudava says the Iraq experience is a vital part of Georgia's military strategy.

Mr. MAMUKA KUDAVA (Deputy Defense Minister, Georgia): Two or three years ago we had no professional units in our armed forces. We have gained lots of experience in Iraq. It has been hugely successful. Capabilities have increased dramatically. And that is important, of course.

SHEETS: But Staff Sergeant Jason Richter says it's an uphill battle preparing the Georgians to go to Iraq on just a few weeks training.

Staff Sergeant JASON RICHTER (U.S. Marine Corps): They've had a lot of exposure to the Soviet style and philosophy of military thinking, which is very different from Western style. Basically they want me to teach these guys everything I've learned in my ten-year career. But how do you do that, you know? You know, stuff 20 pounds into a five-pound bag. It's not easy.

SHEETS: Up until about a decade ago, Georgia had virtually no regular army. Ragtag paramilitaries fought and lost two wars against the secessionists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Senior Lieutenant Beka Mahoray is headed to Iraq along with the rest of the Georgian 22nd Battalion. Mahori says his country looks to exploit its military experience in Iraq with an eye to retaking lands Georgia has lost to separatists.

Senior Lieutenant BEKA MAHORI (Georgian 22nd Battalion): (Through Translator) The experience in Iraq will help us get through the tough situations and help us reunite Georgia.

(Soundbite of Georgian anthem)

SHEETS: Despite the widespread opposition to the war in much of the world, 75 percent of Georgians say they favor their country's military involvement in Iraq. Georgia also hopes the real world training its troops gets in Iraq will bring the country closer to joining NATO.

Lawrence Sheets, NPR News, Tbilisi.

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