Mongolians return to Baghdad, this time as peacekeepers
25 September 2003
Ulaanbaator: In 1258, the Mongol general Hulegu, a grandson of Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khaan), sacked Baghdad, killing 800,000 people and ending its primacy as the largest city in the Arab world.
This month, the Mongolians returned to Iraq. Ferried into the country on American military transports, 180 Mongolian Army soldiers — all male, all volunteers — are guarding pipelines and working on construction projects under a Polish command.
"This is not like the 13th century," Col. B. Erkhembayar, commander of Mongolia's Peacekeeping Operation Battalion, said here, smiling so widely his eyes disappeared. "Then, we went to invade. This time, we are going to build Iraq."
In the Bush administration's roster of 34 nations serving in Iraq in the American-led "coalition of the willing" about half are formerly Communist countries like Mongolia. Like many other normally overlooked nations that have sent soldiers to Iraq, Mongolia did so more out of geopolitics than concern for Iraq. Mongolia's offer of troops surprised the American government because it had not asked Mongolia for help, said Steven R. Saunders, president of a private, Washington-based group promoting business ties with Mongolia.
Around this dusty city with its Cyrillic character signs left over from the Soviet era, Mongolians talk of supporting democracy in Iraq, of bolstering geopolitical ties with the United States and of returning their nation's long-eclipsed name to the world stage.
Mongolia is the only nation in Northeast Asia where there is widespread support for sending troops to Iraq: Russia glowers, China appears neutral and Japan has approved the sending of troops but begs for more time. South Korea has 650 military medics and engineers in Iraq, sent despite violent public protests. Now, in the face of American demands for combat-trained troops, South Korea is sending a study group.
Slightly more than a decade after the departure of the last Soviet troops here, democracy is not an abstraction for Mongolia. Last summer, Tibetan Buddhist priests working at a monastery here disinterred the remains of about 600 lamas, or high priests, each buried with his hands tied behind his back and a bullet hole in the skull. They were killed in 1937 by Mongolian Communists in an effort by Stalin to stamp out Mongolia's historic religion.
"Words are not enough to fight with terrorism," Prime Minister Nambaryn Enkhbayar of Mongolia said in an interview last week, fresh from welcoming delegates from 118 countries classified as new or restored democracies.
Mongolia is rapidly embracing the United States in an effort to develop a balance to its historically dangerous neighbors, China and Russia. Twice the size of Texas, but with only 2.4 million people, this land of nomadic herders has a deep, if rarely voiced, fear of becoming another Tibet. After centuries of Chinese rule, Mongolia won independence only in 1921 with Soviet support.
Gen. T. Togoo, chief of staff of the Mongolian armed forces, noted that, historically, Mongolia won breathing space by pitting neighbors against each other. As he spoke, rap music from the Voice of America radio filtered through his Soviet-built headquarters.
At the training ground for the peacekeeping unit, the rear window of a Soviet-made jeep carried two fresh stickers in red and gold: "Semper Fi" and "USMC," souvenirs from 50 United States marines who left last week after leading a training exercise.
"Even though our country is locked between China and Russia, the biggest countries in the world, we should not restrict our relations," Colonel Erkhenbayar said in his second- floor office, decorated with photos, patches, and medals from nearly a decade of contacts with American military forces. "America could be our first neighbor, the way it is for Poland."
The Mongolian efforts appear to be paying dividends. "They were one of the first nations to sign up to send peacekeepers to Iraq," Pamela J. H. Slutz, the American ambassador here, said in an interview. "That has created enormous good will in Washington. For us it was also a prime example of the utility and success of our military assistance program."
The United States has provided the Mongolian military with peacekeeping training, English lessons and, for the Chinese border area, patrol radios and engineering work.
According to foreign mining company employees who work in the Gobi Desert border areas, this "engineering work" seems to involve installing electronic surveillance equipment to monitor North Korea and the Lop Nor nuclear testing site in China, which is just across Mongolia's western border.
American Embassy officials here declined to comment on these reports.
In addition, the United States is advising Mongolia on how to reshape its military for the post-Soviet era. Over the last 20 years, Mongolia's military has shrunk by two-thirds, to about 15,000 today. Last year, a law took effect defining the military's primary missions as border patrol, disaster relief and participation in international peacekeeping missions.
By sending troops to Iraq, Mongolia hopes to win powerful friends for a small nation that is often confused with Inner Mongolia, the neighboring Chinese province.
"Now," said Col. Gurragchaa, a military spokesman, "everyone will know where Mongolia is."
"We are squeezed between two superpowers, so having an army is not enough," Prime Minister Enkhbayar said in English honed at the London School of Economics and Americanized in trips to Washington. "We have to secure our sovereignty and independence through diplomatic measures, economic measures, international organizations."
Two weeks ago, as the last Mongolian soldiers arrived in Iraq, Mongolia, whose trade with the United States was only $180 million last year, formally proposed to Washington a free trade pact.
"Negotiations could be concluded in one weekend," Mr. Saunders said over a pineapple pizza lunch at the California Restaurant, one of the latest American cultural imitations here. "It would have not any economic impact on the U.S. In one year, the U.S. trades less with Mongolia than what it trades with Taiwan in 12 hours."
From: UB Post