MANILA, January 10, 2003 (STAR)  The Philippine government has offered assistance to the United States in its campaign against Iraq, a senior defense official said yesterday.

The official, who asked not to be named, said the offer was made during a 30-minute meeting at Malacañang yesterday between President Arroyo and visiting US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and Internal Security John Bolton.

Also present during the meeting were Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople, National Security Adviser Roilo Golez and Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes.

"The offer was more on (the) peacekeeping and humanitarian component of their campaign. All non-combatant," the official told The STAR.

No combatants can be sent as it would require congressional approval and run counter to the Philippines’ call for peace in the region.

The official said the offer was made as part of the Philippines’ commitment to the global fight against terrorism.

"If they (US) could really justify that the campaign is part of the effort against terrorism, then we could send some of our personnel for humanitarian and peacekeeping work," the official said.

The assistance, if accepted by the US, would mean that Philippine peacekeeping troops would be deployed, the official said. Some engineers, doctors, and possibly veterinarians would also be sent to Iraq.

It was not yet clear, the official said, whether the government would wait for the United Nations’ approval of the US campaign before sending peacekeepers and other humanitarian personnel.

"We still have to see under what aegis they will be working on," the official said.

The Iraq campaign could also be the test run of the RP-US Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) signed last year.

The MLSA allows both sides to draw supplies from each other on credit during a pre-approved activity under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. The payments are in kind.

The Philippine military and police have long experience in peacekeeping operations, notably in East Timor and some parts of Eastern Europe and Africa.

Meanwhile, Bolton reiterated the determination of the US government to ensure that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction. He also talked about long-terms plans of the US in terms of an Iraq that is free from these weapons.

Ople, on the other hand, raised his concerns for the safety of 1.5 million Filipinos in the Middle East.

"The safety of the Filipinos in the Middle East is a primary concern of the Philippine government. While we are prepared for a possible conflict it is our hope that should such a conflict break out, it will be a short one and one that will not affect the overall security situation in the Middle East," Ople said.

He added that the government has sought the assistance of the International Organization for Migration and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, should there be a need for relocation or evacuation because of hostilities in the region.

"Bolton expressed his full understanding and appreciation for the concerns we have over our countrymen in the Middle East. He assured me that the US would do all it can to support our efforts to protect Filipinos," Ople said.

The two officials also discussed the situation in the Korean peninsula.

Ople said that the US continues to view the situation with the gravest concern, and while they are willing to discuss the matter with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), "any such discussion will not involve any negotiations."

He also reiterated the position of the Philippines, calling on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, allow the return of inspectors and the reinstallation of monitoring equipment, and to fully comply with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other pertinent agreements.

"Both of us agreed that there is a serious need to exert every possible diplomatic effort to turn things around in the Korean peninsula," Ople said.

Ople added that both he and Bolton agreed that they need to continue consultations on this matter, particularly at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), where the Philippines is a member of the governing board.

The Philippines recently joined other members of the IAEA’s governing board in adopting a strongly worded resolution calling on North Korea to cooperate and readmit international inspectors.

Upon adopting the resolution, Ople said that this will provide another opportunity for North Korea to divert from its chosen course of resuming its nuclear weapons program and that it is an opportunity that should be taken.

After his visit to the Philippines, Bolton will proceed to Thailand to conduct similar discussions. — Paolo Romero, Delon Porcalla

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