Saakashvili Praises Military Exercise

ReutersU.S. servicemen instructing Georgian soldiers during a joint military drill Tuesday at the Vaziani base outside Tbilisi.
TBILISI, Georgia -- 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."