Manila, March 10, 2003 -- The Philippine Embassy in Baghdad may close any time due to the impending US-led war against Iraq, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said yesterday.

The DFA said embassy charge d'affaires Grace Escalante "is ready to leave anytime," based on her own assessment of the situation in the area.

In an interview, DFA Assistant Secretary Andy Mosquera said Escalante, as the official on the ground, was given the discretion to decide on the right time to close the embassy.

Mosquera said Escalante is accompanied at the embassy by an administrative officer, a communications officer, a local employee and a driver.

"We are just waiting for her to tell us that she is already leaving. She was asked to prepare to close the embassy anytime. It's not yet today (Sunday) but anytime she wants to do so, we will approve and give her the go-signal," Mosquera told The STAR.

He said Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople gave Escalante such a prerogative because only a few Asian diplomats are left in Baghdad. Other embassy officials and staff have been evacuated to Jordan, along with their dependents.

The DFA is also delaying the assignment of a new Iraqi ambassador to Manila, apparently due to the threat of war breaking out in the Middle East.

On Feb. 12, the DFA expelled Iraqi Embassy Second Secretary Hushaim Husain for reported links with the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group. At that time, the Iraqi government expressed its desire to send a new ambassador since its embassy in the country has been run only by a charge d'affaires for quite some time.

Ople said he wanted to welcome the new Iraqi ambassador at a more auspicious time and asked the Iraqi foreign ministry to cancel the assignment of Ghazi Faiza Hussein, who was supposed to arrive in February.

DFA sources explained there is no point in confirming an envoy from Iraq since a war is imminent, and the US is pushing for a regime change.

Ople also said he foresees war breaking out in the Middle East "in a matter of days" and not weeks, as the US has not received cooperation from the Iraqi side to destroy its weapons of mass destruction.

But Ople expressed hope that all diplomatic means will be exhausted to prevent war from erupting, due to its serious repercussions on the world economy.

At least 1.4 million Filipino workers may be affected by the war in the Gulf, the DFA said. (By Aurea Calica, Star)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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