Page last updated at 12:08 GMT, Thursday, 3 April 2008 13:08 UK

Georgia sees Iraq as Nato route

By Neil Arun
BBC News, Tbilisi

Nato has put the brakes on its eastward expansion - for the time being balking at taking the alliance further into the former Soviet Union.

Georgian troops training for Iraq
Georgian troops are learning to fight the Nato way in Iraq

Georgia is one of two countries that will leave Nato's Bucharest summit disappointed, having hoped this year, along with Ukraine, for a clear map of its path to eventual membership.

Nato's reluctance, Georgia says, is a victory for Russia, whose strident objections to former Soviet states joining the alliance have overshadowed the summit.

Full membership may elude Georgia for some time yet - but militarily, it is reaping the rewards of a decision made five years ago with an eye to impressing Nato.

This mountainous nation of five million people in the Caucasus provides the third largest force in the US-led coalition in Iraq, after the US and Britain.

Its contingent of more than 2,000 troops is mostly stationed in Wasit province, in the south-east.

Their main task is to stop weapons smuggled over the Iranian border from furnishing the arsenal of the insurgency.

'Strategic partnership'

At an airbase on the outskirts of Tbilisi, Capt Levan Usenashvili, back from Iraq, describes in English tinged with Americanisms the suicide bombs and the searing heat.

"You don't know what will happen and what time it will happen," he says. "But we gained good experience."

Batu Kutelia
[Iraq] was a really pragmatic and practical tool for us to increase the level of training and professionalism of our armed forces
Batu Kutelia,
Georgian deputy defence minister

The Georgians were trained by US troops and used similar equipment to them.

"We conduct the missions with the same tactics," Capt Usenashvili says.

According to David Smith, a former US diplomat now based in Tbilisi as a security analyst, the deployment in Iraq has strengthened Georgia's case for joining Nato.

Mr Smith says Georgia's commitment shows it is "willing and able to contribute, to participate" in a military operation that, though not officially conducted by Nato, involves Nato countries.

"For a country this size to field 2,000 troops is a major undertaking," he says.

Moreover, Mr Smith says, the Iraq deployment has helped Georgia enhance its "ability for joint operations and inter-operability".

This point of view is echoed by Georgia's pro-Western government, which inherited a military weakened by post-communist conflicts.

If it wanted to join Nato, it felt it would first have to learn to fight the Nato way. Iraq was the place to do that.

Deputy Defence Minister Batu Kutelia describes the deployment in Iraq as "a strategic partnership reflected in practical actions".

"But it has another side as well. It was a really pragmatic and practical tool for us to increase the level of training and professionalism of our armed forces."

Nato drive

Georgia appears to have paid a relatively low price for joining the coalition.

Compared to the US and Britain, Georgia has seen little domestic opposition to the war in Iraq.

Its troops have suffered relatively few casualties, with only two deaths reported so far.

Capt Levan Usenashvili
Capt Usenashvili expects to perform another tour of duty in Iraq

On the other hand, the country's military has been upgraded and its government has been feted by the Americans as a vital ally.

Iraq, Mr Kutelia says, is a cost-effective operation, ideally suited to Georgia's Nato aspirations.

"Georgia's main foreign policy priority is to be part of the Euro-Atlantic community," he says.

"This the place where we see ourselves in terms of our values."

Speaking several weeks before the Nato summit, Mr Kutelia argued that Georgia's entry into Nato would boost security in the notoriously unstable Caucasus.

"The security environment is quite tough in our region," he said.

Georgia's most pressing security concerns relate to its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which border Russia.

Their leaders largely have Russian support and most of their residents carry Russian passports.

As Tbilisi was eyeing Nato membership, Moscow warned it could formally recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The Georgian government believes eventual entry into Nato will fortify the country against Moscow's influence.

Future Nato summits will have to decide whether the organisation can risk angering Russia by opening the door to Georgia.

Sleek military

According to David Smith, "it's in the geo-political interest of all 26 Nato members to have Georgia on board".

"The Caucasus is a very volatile area. We have trafficking of human beings, drugs, of weapons and who knows what else.

"We even had highly-enriched uranium moving around... Having an ally in this region is an absolute boon to Nato," he says.

Five years ago, Georgia's government shrewdly calculated that the road to Nato passes through Iraq.

Nato membership may elude Georgia for some time yet, but if nothing else, Georgia's creaky Soviet-issue military is becoming a sleek new force that can march in sync with the United States.

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