- The Washington Times - Friday, November 5, 2004

TBILISI, Georgia — The Georgian government, bucking a trend among U.S. coalition allies in Iraq, this week announced a fivefold increase in its deployment to Iraq.

Government officials and private analysts here say the decision, which includes a major new U.S. commitment to train additional Georgian troops, reflects the close and growing ties with the Bush administration, in stark contrast to several other European states.

President Mikhail Saakashvili, briefing reporters after the expanded Iraq mission was made public Thursday, also broke with many of his European colleagues in effusively welcoming President Bush’s re-election this week.

“This victory was very important to us,” he said. “Mr. Bush is a man of great principle, a man of great understanding of the complicated issues in our region, and the personality without whom the fight against terrorism would hardly have been possible.”

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Georgia has committed to increase its Iraq force from the current 159 to 850, with the additional forces intended to provide protection for U.N. personnel helping oversee rebuilding and the planned elections early next year.

Details on the size of the U.S. program to train Georgian troops were not made public, although local press reports have speculated the figure could be as high as $40 million to train about 4,000 troops.

“We warmly welcome this deployment,” Mr. Boucher said.

Gia Nodia, head of the Tbilisi-based Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, said Georgia’s desire to maintain strong ties to Washington had kept the Iraq mission from becoming a political liability for the Saakashvili government the way it has for other coalition members who are contemplating withdrawal. No Georgian troops have been killed in Iraq.

Mr. Nodia said Georgians harbor a deep sense of gratitude to the United States for supporting the country’s rocky path to independence with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

The Bush administration’s program, begun in 2002 to equip and train Georgia’s struggling armed forces, is seen as a major enhancement of the relationship and a key bulwark against efforts by neighboring Russia to intimidate Tbilisi.

“The Iraq mission has never been controversial here, even though I don’t think many Georgians were enthusiastic about the war,” said Mr. Nodia. “The general feeling is that our participation in the coalition is the right thing to do because we want to be very clear and consistent about our willingness to cooperate with Washington.”

The additional 691 troops, in a nation of fewer than 5 million people, would make Georgia one of the top contributors to the U.S.-led coalition on a per capita basis.

Georgia also has peacekeeping troops stationed in Afghanistan and Kosovo and had taken the first steps in a long-term effort to join NATO.

Mr. Nodia said popular support for the extra troops in Iraq could diminish if Georgians sustain casualties, but said the country so far has not seen the kind of intense anti-Bush feeling felt in other parts of the world.

“Bush is a known factor for us, and we had quite strong cooperation with this administration on Russia, on military reforms and other issues,” he said. “I think for most Georgian politicians there was a sense of real relief that Bush was re-elected, if only because there was uncertainty about what [Sen. John] Kerry might have done.”

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