MANILA, January 16, 2004 (STAR) SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan - Like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Francis Ricciardone has vowed to return. But Washington’s ambassador to Manila, now on indefinite leave, looked like he was bidding goodbye for good on the eve of his departure.

Ricciardone, with his wife Marie beside him at their residence in Forbes Park, looked pleased as he explained to me and two other guests why he had suddenly been recalled to Washington.

I don’t know how an American can look ecstatic over an assignment involving Iraq, where every GI is a sitting duck. But then Ricciardone will be spending most of his time in Washington, although he will eventually visit Baghdad to meet with the American overseer, Paul Bremer. Ricciardone will help set up an embassy there in time for the creation of a sovereign government.

Washington’s deadline: June 30. By that time, as we all know, we will have a president (I hesitate to say new) who will govern for the next six years.

* * *

A new embassy will need an ambassador; surely the reopening of a US embassy in Iraq after 15 years will merit more than a chargé d’affaires as head. Will Ricciardone be America’s first ambassador to Iraq, post-Saddam?

Depending on what you want in life, that can be cause for rejoicing. Ricciardone was posted in Iraq during the Clinton administration to undermine the regime of Saddam Hussein. Ricciardone missed the action during "shock and awe," but then he’s not a soldier. It would be reasonable to believe that he would want to have a hand in building a free country from the rubble of the war.

Ricciardone may already have a clear idea of the path that nation-building should take in Iraq. Shortly before his departure for Washington, he sent friends in Manila copies of best-selling author Lester Thurow’s book Fortune Favors the Bold: What We Must Do to Build a New and Lasting Global Prosperity.

Thurow is worried about the US economy, particularly the massive fiscal deficit. He argues that globalization is here to stay, and the best models for economic success are China and Ireland.

* * *

"Iraq is not a wonderful place. It’s a miserable place," Ricciardone admits. But he considers it "exciting" to build a new country. "Before June 30 there will be a sovereign government in place in Iraq… I have to help with that… I feel humbled and honored to be given (the job)."

Ricciardone sees promise everywhere, including the Philippines. Even the elections in May, which doomsayers warn could lead to the nation’s collapse, holds for him the promise of positive change.

"It’s going to be an exciting year," he told us. "It’s a year of promise."

Will he be back in Manila within this exciting year of promise? Ricciardone concedes nation-building in a place as devastated as Iraq could take years.

"My intention is to come back," he said. "I hope I can still get another year here."

He is happy to note that ties between the Philippines and the United States have "matured," although "there are other things I’d like to see in this relationship." But he adds that he will go where his government sends him.

* * *

With Ricciardone during our meeting was Joseph Mussomeli, the embassy’s affable deputy chief of mission who is now chargé d’affaires. I warned Mussomeli that the rumor mills would go on overdrive with Ricciardone’s departure. Mussomeli has only two requests. One: that we spell his surname right. The other: "Be gentle with me."

The Philippine government has tried to pass off Ricciardone’s departure as nothing but a routine movement in the diplomatic world. But I remember a lot of displeased noise in Manila at the start of the Arroyo administration, when the months wore on without an ambassador at the US embassy. Ricciardone finally arrived here in February 2002.

Now, after less than two years, the embassy is again without an ambassador in residence. Is Washington trying to avoid being perceived as favoring any particular Philippine presidential candidate?

"I’ve just told you all I know," Ricciardone said, chuckling.

If Malacañang saw anything positive about Ricciardone’s departure, the word would have gone out as early as Tuesday, when President Arroyo was informed about it by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, and later by Ricciardone.

When Ricciardone sat down for our meeting at 3 p.m. the next day, he was surprised that the story had not leaked out in this rumor-mad town despite the number of Philippine officials who had been informed about it.

The recall was so abrupt that Ricciardone told us he had not yet even packed his bags. His departure has set the rumor mills churning, with speculation that either he’s gone for good or the Americans are cooking up something.

* * * MUM’S THE WORD: For the record, the US embassy won’t comment on the following:

• The Honolulu case involving Philippine telecommunications executives, since that is under the US Justice Department, and State Department personnel (such as embassy folks) who open their big mouths can get subpoenaed. Ricciardone’s departure has nothing to do with the case.

• The visa for deposed President Joseph Estrada, out of respect for his privacy.

• The citizenship question hounding presidential aspirant Fernando Poe Jr. Ricciardone said they are prohibited from commenting publicly on such matters, out of respect for individual privacy. So expect neither confirmation nor denial from the embassy that FPJ is a US citizen. "We can’t help him there," Ricciardone said. *

 * *

LONELY AT THE TOP: As Fernando Poe Jr.’s star rises in the political firmament, he will have to keep in mind that it can be lonely at the top. He may be surprised and deeply disappointed if he even suspects who might have planted the idea in the minds of his opponents that he is really not a natural-born Filipino citizen.

The talk – accompanied by snickering – is that the source of that little-known detail in the life of FPJ had blurted out to someone in the administration camp: "You’re so stupid. He’s not an American. He’s Spanish!" Or words to that effect.

Now that you’re a politician, FPJ, watch your back.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved