March 27, 2003
ZALLHERR, Albania -- In this Muslim country where Americans are adored and U.S. flags flutter atop cinderblock homes, Ervin Sula and other soldiers are gearing up for action in Iraq.
Albania, one of the Bush administration's most effusive supporters in the war, has a military too weak to offer combat troops. But that hasn't stopped the government from committing 70 soldiers to carry out postwar peacekeeping duties.
"It is dangerous, I know. But this is an army and we go to a war," said Sula, 20, taking a break from demining training at a base in Zallherr, just outside the capital, Tirana.
The mission contingent of eight English-speaking officers, 20 sergeants and 42 soldiers will be equipped with light weaponry by the army and with antichemical warfare equipment from the United States. The timing of their deployment has not yet been determined.
Lt. Col. Fatmir Lokaj, the training commander, said 150 soldiers volunteered to fill the 70 slots.
"We go there for operations supporting peace, which means our unit will not be part of the first stage of combat operations," said Maj. Gen. Pellumb Qazimi, the army chief of staff.
Albania, which also has opened its airspace, land routes and territorial waters to U.S.-led forces and has offered use of its bases, was quick to join President Bush's "coalition of the willing."
"Though we are a small country with a small military, we are proud to stand side-by-side with our allies in the fight to end the reign of terror in Baghdad," Prime Minister Fatos Nano said last week after hostilities began. His speech was peppered with poetic references to the U.S. role in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Albania, which emerged from decades of communist isolation in 1991, has expressed gratitude to the United States for leading the 1999 NATO air campaign that ended former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's vicious crackdown on ethnic Albanians in nearby Kosovo.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, American flags sprouted from homes and businesses across Albania. Bush's invasion of Iraq has drawn similar support among ordinary people in this nation of 3.1-million that is smaller than Maryland. Unlike in other East European countries, there hasn't been a single protest against the war.
"This is a chance for us to show to the world that we never forget good things done to us," said Alban Kalo, a 21-year-old soldier from Tirana.
Albania's army has been involved in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Afghanistan. The Zallherr commando unit, created in 1995, helped protect the border during the 1998-99 Kosovo war and the 2001 conflict in neighboring Macedonia.
"This mission is completely different because we don't know our job there and we'll be in a totally different environment," said the mission's deputy commander, Capt. Ilirjan Dauti. "But be sure we shall succeed."
Sula said he was so eager to serve that he asked his father to persuade the unit commander to sign him up.
He had to. His aunts, fearful of seeing him head off to Iraq, had pulled some strings to get Sula off the list. They didn't realize that for the young Albanian, staying behind was not an option.
"How could I stay away from my friends?" he said.