MANILA, January 4, 2003 (STAR)  By Aurea Calica  - The United States has sought the Philippines’ "general support" should it launch a strike against Iraq as part of the war on terror.

US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone pressed Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople for Manila’s commitment in the event of a US-led war on Iraq, sources at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said.

"The ambassador said he wanted general support from the Philippine government, but he did not specify what kind of support," one source said.

The source said while Ricciardone did not specify the kind of support needed by the US, definitely no combat troops from the Philippines would be tapped.

Ricciardone was asked about this when he visited the DFA before the holidays.

The sources said Ople assured Ricciardone that Manila would likely commit to opening its airspace, ports and facilities to the United States and to deploy medical missions to the Middle East if the need arises.

At Malacañang, President Arroyo said she foresees a "quick" war in the Middle East should the US launch a military offensive against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who is suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction.

Mrs. Arroyo predicted that, as in the Gulf War in 1991, the next conflict will be brief, with the US emerging victorious.

The National Security Council (NSC), which is headed by President Arroyo, has yet to receive a formal US request for assistance from the Philippines in case of actual hostilities in Iraq.

A Palace official who requested anonymity told The STAR yesterday that the NSC follows the processing of such requests, which must first take place at the level of the DFA.

"We cannot comment on that yet because the decision of the NSC in our last meeting was that when hostilities are imminent, we would meet again," the Palace official said.

One DFA source also said the Philippines wants a clear-cut request from Washington, since the all-out support the Arroyo administration earlier declared was for the war against international terrorism and not a war on Iraq.

DFA officials believe that the war may erupt between the end of January and the first week of February.

Ople said the government will allow US warships and planes to land, dock and refuel in Philippine territory. American troops will also be permitted on Philippine soil, but their presence should only be part of a "swift transit."

"Our Mutual Defense Treaty with the US binds us to help (them)," Ople said.

Manila and Washington signed a five-year Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) in November, seen as a key element in enhancing Manila’s fight against terrorism.

The MLSA would give the US limited rights to base equipment in the Philippines for a limited period.

Ople said Mrs. Arroyo made the commitment in September, and the expression of support was made in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441, which calls on all UN member-states to combat terrorism.

"We will try to make our own modest contribution because we’re not a mighty country. We have had success (with) our own effort to contain terrorism in our country," Ople said.

He also said that the Philippines’ support will not constitute sending Filipino troops to Iraq, but in the form of humanitarian missions.

"I can’t see the Philippines sending combat troops to join a foreign war but this is in the realm of possibility. We can constitute a humanitarian force, medical teams of doctors and nurses and engineers to support our allies in the Middle East or Iraq," Ople said. Sacrifices

Mrs. Arroyo, speaking before a rally of the Tricycle Operators and Drivers Association (TODA), admitted to the possibility of a US-Iraq war in the immediate future when she responded to the petition of public transport groups about their concerns on rising gasoline prices.

The increase in local gasoline prices is due to the hike in prices of world crude.

"Because no one really knows there might even be war in Iraq, and this could add to our sacrifices, especially for gasoline buyers like you," Mrs. Arroyo said.

She said that based on past wars in the Middle East, too much speculation about an impending war leads to a steep increase in crude oil prices.

"So once war started and they knew that America would easily win, the prices (went) down. Because — as they said — when America wins, the crude oil is released," she said.

What is important, the President said, is for us to "pray there would be no war, and that this would only be for a short time so additional sacrifices we expect to do, we pray would also be for a short period only."

The Philippine government will be deploying a team to oversee the safety and security of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the Middle East on Jan. 6.

The President has also ordered the re-deployment of the Middle East Preparedness Team (MEPT) led by retired Armed Forces chief Gen. Roy Cimatu.

Cimatu and his team will be accompanied by nine chemical and biological warfare experts from the Armed Forces of the Philippines to oversee the condition of the 1.5 million Filipinos in the region.

Ople said the MEPT is scheduled to leave for Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – the three countries most likely to be affected by the war.

The government has allotted P300 million for the evacuation and relocation of Filipinos who will be affected by the US-Iraq conflict.

In a related development, Vice President Teofisto Guingona said that even after Mrs. Arroyo gave her commitment in assisting the US in its anti-terror campaign and its conflict with Iraq, the country has nothing to offer the superpower in terms of either logistics or personnel.

He said earlier the government prematurely announced that it will provide transiting rights and overflight privileges to US forces if the war against Iraq breaks out.

Without a UN resolution on the Middle East conflict, there is no basis for the Philippines to participate in the US-Iraq conflict, said Guingona, who resigned as DFA secretary when he opposed the President on the issue of signing the MLSA with the US.

The US is undertaking a massive military buildup in the Middle East even as US President George W. Bush warned Hussein that he holds the key to war or peace.

Baghdad has been under pressure from the UN to renounce its alleged program to amass weapons of mass destruction, which the Iraqi leader denies having.

Bush earlier condemned Iraq’s weapons disclosure as "full of omissions and deceptions." — With Marichu Villanueva, AFP

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