Manila, Feb. 15, 2003 -- The government of Iraq strongly protested the Philippine decision to expel its diplomat in Manila who is believed to have links with the Abu Sayyaf group, a report from the Philippine Embassy in Baghdad disclosed yesterday.

At the same time, Baghdad is asking for a reconsideration of the government's decision, but the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in Manila is not inclined to give in to the request.

"Iraq is registering its strong protest at the Philippine action and is requesting a reconsideration of the Philippine decision since this is happening at a time when the United States is trying to escalate tension between Iraq and its friends," Philippine Charge d'Affaires to Baghdad Grace Escalante said in a report to the home office.

Escalante sent the report on Feb. 13 after she was summoned by the Iraq Foreign Ministry upon the instructions of Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri.

Escalante met with Ghassan Hussain, head of the second political division of the Foreign Ministry, and was asked to explain the expulsion last Wednesday Iraqi Embassy's Second Secretary Husham Hussain, who left on a Qatar Airways flight at 11:30 p.m. Thursday for Doha.

According to Escalante, the Iraqi government received the news as a "great surprise" and said it is "against the nature of friendship between the two countries."

Hussain told Escalante that Iraq has stood strong against all terrorist acts in the Philippines as he denied a Philippine intelligence report linking its embassy official to the Abu Sayyaf and the bombing in Malagutay, Zamboanga City that killed an American serviceman last year.

"It is in their position not to fall in the US trap and that our long-standing friendship should guide them in taking wise and proper decisions," Escalante said.

The Iraqi foreign ministry official even noted that Iraq never interfered in the Philippines' domestic affairs, particularly on the issue of Moslem insurgency in Mindanao.

Hussain also told Escalante the Iraqi government is "not agitating support" for its position in the Philippines and explained that anti-war sentiments are happening not only in the Philippines.

He also said their embassy official's participation in rallies "was a personal mistake and not their instructions."

The Palace, meantime, stressed the expulsion of the Iraqi embassy official was not influenced by the United States.

In a press briefing, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said there is no truth to reports that Mrs. Arroyo granted US President George Bush's request to expel Hussain.

He explained the case of the Iraqi diplomat had been undergong thorough study and was supported by the reliable intelligence information coming from the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency.

Bunye said that Hussain was even given the chance to voluntarily leave the country which the latter refused, the reason Ople was forced to retrieve the accreditation of the diplomat.

"The DFA arrived at this decision independently and was based on the intelligence report which is very credible, and we would have wanted the other side (Iraq Embassy) to voluntary ask its own functionary (Hussain) to leave (the country) but that did not come to pass. So, what happened was after they even showed a sign of defiance. The DFA was forced to recall the accreditation of the diplomat," he stressed.

But the Philippines is still keen on maintaining good bilateral relations with Iraq after the incident.

This was the pronouncement of Acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Lauro Baja Jr. who also expressed optimism the arrival of Iraq's new envoy to Manila on Saturday "would finally close the unfortunate chapter in our relations with Iraq."

"We should consider that a closed case. The sooner we stop talking about it, the better," Baja told reporters in a chance interview.

The new Iraqi Ambassador, Ghazi Faisal Hussein, was originally due to be Manila on Friday, but his arrival was delayed because of the expulsion of their second secretary. Baja defended Philippine intelligence community in monitoring the activities of the Iraqi Embassy.

"The intelligence of each country has a mandate to do that," he said.

The DFA official also warned that the intelligence community will be watching not only Iraqi Embassy officials, but all foreigners who wish to conduct activities not consistent with their stay here and violative of national security.

Meanwhile, Bureau of Immigration (BI) Commissioner Andrea Domingo yesterday reported that Husham Hussain has been placed on the immigration blacklist and is now banned from re-entering the Philippines for charges of being an undesirable alien. Domingo told reporters that she placed him on the BI blacklist hours after he left Manila aboard a plane to Qatar.

"Hussain is blacklisted to protect the national interest and in-line with the BI's mandate to ban the entry of aliens who are deemed threats to national security of our country," she explained.

Domingo said that since intelligence reports bared that Hussain allegedly received a phone call from the demolition man before a bomb exploded in Zamboanga late last year, he is charged for being an undesirable alien for conniving with terrorist activities.

The BI chief said Hussain cannot return to the Philippines even as a tourist so long as his name remains in the blacklist.

And as part of security measures, the immigration bureau is continuing to monitor the activities of foreigners in the country to ensure they are on track of all aliens who may launch sympathetic attacks once the US strikes Iraq.

She said the bureau is updating the whereabouts of foreigners in the country so if any of them gets involved in crime or terrorist activities, the aliens can easily be traced or arrested.

"We have full records of foreigners coming in and leaving the country. We also are tracking their whereabouts and activities with the BI's computerized monitoring facility," Domingo disclosed. (Tribune)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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