Manila, March 19, 2003 -- Although it refused to categorically say it, government last night threw its support to US President George W. Bush's decision to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein without authorization from the UN Security Council.

President Arroyo convened the National Security Council hours after Bush gave Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq and go on exile to avert war.

Arroyo called the NSC to a meeting after the Cabinet meeting adjourned at about 2:30 p.m., a day before it was originally scheduled to meet.

After the three-hour NSC meeting, security adviser Roilo Golez and presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye released a vaguely worded statement saying "it is in the national interest of the Philippines to provide political and moral support to efforts to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction."

Golez said the NSC adopted the call of President Cory Aquino for all leaders to unite on this issue. Aquino also expressed satisfaction over government preparations to ensure the safety of Filipinos here and overseas.

Vice President Teofisto Guingona and Sen. Manuel Villar, chairman of the Senate committee on foreign affairs, warned against a high-profile support for the US.

Golez and Bunye declined to comment on the 48-hour deadline.

When Palace reporters pressed and asked whether the Philippines supports efforts within the mandate of the UN or not, Golez said: "We are talking of the present efforts of the US and its allies."

He said the defense and interior of departments noted that "ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) would prevent the possibility of some these WMDs landing in the hands of local terrorists."

He said giving military support to the US and its allies is "definitely out" and that the question over overflights and refueling rights for US planes is "very hypothetical" because the Philippines is far from the conflict area.

But if such a request is made, he said, the DFA will study it to determine if it is "consistent with the Constitution and our national interest."

He said the NSC is aware of a possible Muslim rebel backlash and has made contingency plans even as it considers the probability as "very low."

President Arroyo, prior to the NSC meeting, said "peace remains the best option" in easing the tension of Middle East and that averting war lies in the hands of Hussein.

"We keep our hopes high that the situation can be resolved by a consensus of the international community, and I pray that Saddam Hussein will take all steps to avert war and pave the way for a peaceful resolution of the conflict," Arroyo said.

"We have more than enough oil, rice and essential public needs, we've mobilized the whole government machinery including the local governments, the AFP and the PNP," she said.

She, however, called for everyone's cooperation particularly in safeguarding communities against terrorist attacks.

She also directed the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Middle East Preparedness Team to take measures to ensure the safety of Filipinos in the Middle East and at the same time preserve diplomatic normalcy.

"Let's be calm, vigilant and alert. Every Filipino must be responsible for his or her fellow human being. Setting aside partisanship, let's focus our hearts and energies to the task at hand. Together and united we shall overcome this crisis," she added.

Government deployed hundreds of troops at airports, embassies and churches to guard against reprisal attacks by Muslim militants.

Troops and police stepped up patrols at air and sea ports, rail stations, oil depots, water reservoirs and shopping malls.

Chief Supt. Vidal E. Querol, chief of the PNP directorate for operations, said about 100 additional policemen will be deployed in embassies.

At least 11 security men will be assigned to every ambassador, he said.

The US embassy said it was open for business despite concern in Washington that "there could be elements who might take some action against US citizens and interests."

More than 120,000 Americans live in the Philippines.

About 100 protesters shouting "US imperialist, number one terrorist" marched on the US embassy but were clubbed back by police and blasted by water cannon. At least 11 were hurt.

Security officials have said rebels fighting for an Islamic homeland in the South may bring their war to Manila if the United States attacked Iraq.

"We see it as a medium probability which has increased slightly in the past few weeks, but it is nothing to be unduly alarmed about," said Trevor Smith, a consultant at Control Risks. "The Mindanao groups do not have the logistics to carry out major attacks in Manila."

ARMM Gov. Parouk Hussin appealed to residents to remain steadfast to their commitment to peace.

"Let us remind ourselves that Islam basically teaches us to live a peaceful way of life. Peace is a moral obligation for all Muslims. It is the only way to achieve development and progress for our people," Hussin said.

Hussin said staging retaliatory actions against Americans or American interests in the Philippines "would serve no purpose for the Muslim community." (By REGINA BENGCO and JOCELYN MONTEMAYOR, Malaya)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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