Manila, Feb. 5, 2003 - President Arroyo yesterday said the United Nations should act "with dispatch and force" if Iraq failed to disarm, and that blame would fall squarely on Baghdad if war broke out.

In her strongest statement yet on the Iraqi crisis, Arroyo said the Philippines was "disappointed" at Iraq's response to UN Resolution 1441 urging full accounting of any weapons of mass destruction it might possess.

"By its actions, it's rapidly losing the opportunity to resolve this matter by peaceful means. If it is not resolved by peaceful means, the responsibility will fall fully upon the Iraqi leadership," Arroyo told a hastily called press briefing where she did not entertain questions.

"The UN should be ready to act with dispatch and force when required. Otherwise, it will lose its credibility as a force for peace," she said.

Arroyo, a staunch supporter of US President George W. Bush's anti-terror campaign, issued the statement shortly after her return from Kuwait, where she discussed with Philippine diplomats plans for the evacuation of Filipinos working in the Middle East who might be affected by a war in Iraq.

The Philippines allowed US military planes to refuel during last year's offensive against Afghanistan but has yet to spell out what support it will give Washington in case of a US strike on Iraq.

About 1.2 million Filipinos work in the Middle East, most of them in Saudi Arabia. There are fewer than 200 in Iraq.

US special forces arrived in the Philippines last month to begin the second phase of military exercises aimed at upgrading the skills of Filipino troops in fighting local Muslim militants, whom the United States accuses of having links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

Arroyo called on the Iraqi leadership to "do what is right."

"They have one last opportunity to put the world on notice that the Iraqi leadership aspires not to conflict and suffering but for compassion and humanity for its people."

"Putting innocent civilians in harm's way is tragic and selfish," Arroyo added. "It should be clear to all that the responsibility to avoid conflict rests with the Iraqi leadership."

Arroyo said the Philippines took a more definite stand on the US-Iraq conflict as a responsible member of the international community of nations tasked to keep international stability and act against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, "particularly by those who have demonstrated irresponsibility in possessing such awesome power of destruction."

"We are also mindful of the danger of these weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, whether wittingly or unwittingly," she said.

"This is a fight against terrorism which has bloodied our own nations in recent years, from Metro Manila bombings to the depredations of the Abu Sayyaf. It has ravaged even countries that have tried to maintain some modicum of neutrality like Indonesia and its Bali tragedy," she added.

Arroyo issued the statement after a one-hour meeting with US officials led by Ambassador Francis Ricciardone, and on the eve of US Secretary of State Colin Powell's testimony to the UN Security Council on the weapons allegedly being kept secret by Iraq.

Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said the Philippines would make a stand after Powell's briefing and after the UN Security Council makes a decision.

Reyes is scheduled to meet today with US Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki who arrived in Manila yesterday.

Shisenki will also call on his Filipino counterpart, Lt. Gen. Gregorio Camiling, after which he will call on Reyes and later AFP chief Gen. Dionisio Santiago.

"Wala sa agenda iyong Iraq dahil sa ang Iraq ay ita-tackle pa sa United Nations Security Council." he said.

Malacaņang denied reports Shisenki was among US officials who joined a meeting with Arroyo.

Executive Secretary Alberto Romulo said Arroyo consulted the Cabinet before issuing the statement to the press.

Romulo said the Philippines is not necessarily aligning itself with the US and its allies but "with the world and all peace-loving people who are against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

"I think this is a cause for which the whole world should rally. We are fearful of the proliferation of nuclear, biological, chemical weapons of mass destruction and we don't want that to happen to our world. We want peace and development. And certainly that will not happen if there is such proliferation," he said.

Jose Ma. Rufino, presidential liaison for political affairs, said Kuwait and its neighboring countries have also expressed exasperation over the alleged "hard-headedness" of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Rufino said Iraq had turned against Kuwait, a long-time ally, by invading it despite the assistance that Kuwait gave it. "So ano'ng klaseng kaibigan yun?" he said.

He said Russia has also declared that Iraq would be at fault if war breaks out.

He also said the Philippines would be powerless because it cannot tell the Americans what to do, and that it should focus its priorities to taking care of its 1.5 million overseas workers in the Middle East. (Malaya)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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