BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Georgia’s soldiers in Iraq want to join the fight at home as soon as possible and hope their experience in the U.S.-led force will prove valuable as conflict deepens in their homeland, their commander said on Friday.
Colonel Bondo Maisuradze said his 2,000-strong force would return when the U.S. military provides transportation.
“They all watch TV, so they want to get home as soon as possible, to help our guys to defend ourselves from the bad guys,” he told Reuters by telephone.
“Russia cannot let us go free. They want to keep us like puppets on a string,” he said.
Georgia is the largest contributor of forces to Iraq after the United States and Britain. Its forces are deployed mainly in southern Wasit province near the Iranian border, and also in Diyala north of Baghdad and Baghdad itself.
The former Soviet republic built up its modern military from scratch in the 1990s after losing two wars to separatists it says were backed by Moscow. It has made a priority of working alongside U.S. forces in Iraq to gain combat experience and strengthen its case to join the NATO alliance.
Maisuradze said the experience of working with the Americans had helped turn his men into a highly professional unit.
“Professionalism comes with experience,” he said. “Training at home is good, but when you are in a conflict zone, a person internalizes it and feels it in his spirit.”
Although Iraq’s desert conditions are different from the mountainous terrain in Georgia, many of the tasks his men are likely to face once they return will be similar.
“All the missions we have conducted here, we will do the same in our homeland,” he said. “Establishing order in areas that have been outside the control of government, patrolling roads.”
SACRIFICE AND COMMITMENT
The U.S. military said it would readjust its force structure to make up for the departing troops and did not anticipate a long-term impact on overall security in Iraq.
“Georgian forces have played a key role partnering with the Iraqi security forces to allow the Iraqi people a chance to rebuild their lives and return to normalcy,” the U.S. military said in a statement.
“We greatly appreciate the sacrifice and commitment of the Georgian forces and their government in support of the coalition and the Iraqi people.”
A small contingent of Georgians deployed in Iraq in 2003, but the mission was expanded into a much larger one in 2007. Five Georgians have died in Iraq, all in the past two years.
Maisuradze said his men blame Moscow for triggering the conflict which broke out in South Ossetia, one of two ethnic enclaves that has been outside the control of the Georgian authorities and patrolled by Russians since the 1990s.
He was not yet worried for family in the capital Tbilisi, believing the international community would not permit the crisis to escalate into a full-blown war with Russia.
“If it gets to that — worry or don’t worry, how will it help?”