Manila, March 20, 2003 -- As part of the "coalition of the willing," the Philippines might send peacekeeping forces and humanitarian assistance to Iraq. But President Arroyo said she would send no combat troops to the Middle East.

"The Philippines is part of the coalition of the willing. We are giving political and moral support for actions to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction," Mrs. Arroyo told the graduating class of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) at Fort Del Pilar in Baguio City.

But while the government would not send combat troops to the Middle East, Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople said Manila would be willing to grant the United States use of Philippine air space in the course of the war.

Congressional leaders have echoed the government's support of the US and urged the public to unite behind the President's efforts to lessen the impact of the war on some 1.4 million Filipino workers in the Middle East.

At the same time, Mrs. Arroyo said, moments after US forces in the Persian Gulf launched cruise missiles at Iraqi military targets, she hoped the war would be "surgical, short and swift."

"Even as I speak, the signals of war ring out at the other side of the world. A minute ago, I just received notice (that) the war has just begun," the President told the 102 new first lieutenants and ensigns of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

"We shall not be deploying Philippine combat troops... but the Philippines is committed to extend peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance to Iraq after the conflict," the President said, noting that many new AFP officers would likely be sent to Mindanao instead.

The President said Manila's delegation to the United Nations peacekeeping force that is expected to be deployed to Iraq after the war may consist of volunteer policemen but she stressed that the matter was still being discussed.

At the same time, Mrs. Arroyo said the government is prepared to respond to the needs of some 1.4 million Filipino workers in various states in the Persian Gulf.

"For now, we have to face our immediate imperatives. The moral and political cause to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction does not pose a mortal threat to our nationals in the Middle East," the President said.

"(Filipino workers) are in good hands of our embassies, their employers and the host governments. Most of them will stay in place in order to be enveloped by the effective defenses against any attack," she added.

Mrs. Arroyo said the government decided to support the US "politically and morally" because the country's long-standing security alliance with the US was "vital" to national security.

"We are part of a long-standing security alliance. We are part of the global coalition against terrorism. These relationships are vital to our national security. They bear a significance to this war and to our combined efforts to fight terrorism," she said. (By Marichu Villanueva and Jose Rodel Clapano, Star)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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