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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iraq is Letting Georgia Produce Some Security

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The sign by the parade ground at Georgia's Krtsanisi military training headquarters reads: "NATO Security Guarantee." Next to the barracks, on the edge of a road, is a huge, sculpted relief map of the country, which include the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These two visual indicators define Georgia's desires: to join the Western military alliance and to win back the separatist territories.

When I visited the base, however, the soldiers had other things on their minds because they were only days away from flying out to join the U.S. mission in Iraq. Their mission will be to tackle suspected insurgents in a volatile area near the Iranian border. Not that they seemed too concerned about the prospective terrors ahead. "A Georgian soldier is afraid of nothing," Vakhtang Diasamidze, 24, insisted firmly but calmly. "We know it is possible that terrorists could set off explosives and there could be lots of casualties. But we're ready to eliminate this risk."

I met 21-year-old Tamari Gamezardashvili, a slight, dark girl, just as she was just about to practice flushing out a nest of militant fanatics. "This mission means a lot to my homeland," she declared. Gamezardashvili is one of around 30 female soldiers who are off to Iraq. An unusual calling for a woman? "The most important thing is motivation," she responded firmly. "You have to have a soldier's soul."

U.S. military experts have been training the Georgian army since 2002. This is part of Georgia's attempt to modernize its once-tattered, post-Soviet forces, which may increase its chances of joining NATO. As the sign at the Krtsanisi base suggests, this is also seen as a guarantee of Georgia's security amid its disputes with big, bad Russia and those pesky Moscow-backed separatists.

The soldiers I met are part of Georgia's own little surge, as it raises its troop numbers in Iraq to 2,000. When I asked why a small, somewhat impoverished nation was about to become the third-largest contributor to the U.S. mission in Iraq, both the U.S. ambassador to Tbilisi and the deputy defense minister responded with the same phrase: Georgia wants to be seen as "a producer as well as a consumer of security" -- in other words, a credible partner for the West. There is also the issue of gratitude to the United States, which has invested heavily in the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

But questions remain about whether the public here is prepared for the casualties that could occur as Georgian soldiers take on more dangerous missions. Right now, Iraq is something of an abstraction for some Georgians. But body bags could make it very real indeed.

Matthew Collin is a Tbilisi-based journalist.