Manila, Feb. 8, 2003 (Tribune) - Dependents of Philippine Embassy officials and personnel in Iraq have been evacuated to Amman, Jordan, Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople said yesterday.

Ople said only a skeletal force headed by embassy charge d' affaires Grace Escalante remained in Baghdad after President Arroyo lifted an order suspending evacuation in Iraq.

Escalante, in a radio interview, said: "Everything is normal here, especially in Baghdad. Filipinos still report to work. The children still attend school."

There are 118 Filipinos in Iraq, mostly workers in the United Nations, domestic helpers, embassy personnel and their dependents, and Filipino women married to Iraqi nationals.

Ople said there is no need yet to evacuate Filipinos in Kuwait, even as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada have ordered evacuation of their nationals.

Latest word from the Philippine Embassy in Kuwait said that the US forces in Kuwait have moved to the border of Iraq.

"This is probably the reason only some foreign embassies in Kuwait have decided to evacuate their nationals," Ople said.

"We are not resorting to evacuation at this time ... At most we will relocate our Filipino workers to the border of Saudi Arabia," he said.

Ople noted the Kuwaiti government is fully committed to protect Filipino workers as promised by its emir to Mrs. Arroyo during her visit there last week.

He added most of the Filipinos in Kuwait have expressed preference to stay in their jobs until relocation becomes necessary.

Ople reiterated the Philippine government's appeal to the families of the OFWs in the Middle East to "keep calm and composed" because there is no imminent danger to the OFWs there.

"If war breaks out anytime, we will follow the contingency plans to bring them to the border where they are safe. There is no hurry at all to evacuate anybody in the Middle East and there is no cause for panic among their families here," he said.

Ople said the Middle East Preparedness Team led by special envoy Roy Cimatu has done all to ensure the safety of the 1.4 million OFWs in the region.

Ople said the Philippines has also been assured of continuous oil supply from countries like Iran, Indonesia and Malaysia in case war breaks out and the global oil situation is affected.

Foreign affairs officials have said war in Iraq might erupt after Feb. 15, after the Haj or the scorching heat in the Middle East during summer season.

Ople has said only a "miracle" could stop the war but still he expressed hopes that the "optimists will carry the day."

Ople said diplomats are working around the clock to achieve a political settlement of the issue, adding that all diplomatic means should be exhausted to convince Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

Yesterday, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said "momentum is building" for possible war with Iraq. Powell said he thought the showdown with Iraq "will start to come to a head" when top UN weapons inspectors return next week from Baghdad and report to the UN Security Council on Feb. 14.

Also on Friday, US President George W. Bush told Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "the game is over."

National security adviser Roilo Golez said this could be "psy-war" aimed at pressuring Iraq to cooperate fully with UN inspectors.

Vice President Teofisto Guingona said the US has to exercise restraint or it will risk of being branded a "complainant, prosecutor, judge, and executioner."

On the Powell report to the UN Security Council last Thursday, he said: "Valuable it may be, that information cannot be the sole basis of decision by the UN Security Council, much less by a unilateral act of one member state of the UN to punish Iraq." (By MARILOU JUMILLA, with Jocelyn Montemayor and JP Lopez)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved