MANILA, March 19, 2004  (STAR) By Nikko Dizon - The opposition Koalis-yon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) accused President Arroyo yesterday of exposing the country to terrorist attacks through her continuous support of the US-led operations in Iraq.

The KNP issued a statement pointing out the danger the Philippines faces if Mrs. Arroyo continues to support the US-led occupation forces in Iraq.

Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr., who resigned last year from the Cabinet over foreign policy differences with Mrs. Arroyo, also joined critics questioning the "moral aspect" of the US-led operations in Iraq.

The KNP statement quoted senatorial candidate Juan Ponce Enrile as saying the Philippines could not even deal with domestic rebels, and "we should not overly expose our people to the retaliatory activities of terrorists."

They cited Mrs. Arroyo’s "full support for the United States’ anti-terrorism operations in Iraq," particularly a statement that Manila would not pull its 96-member contingent from Iraq despite the recent bombings in Spain.

There has been speculation that the Madrid attacks that killed 201 rail commuters were in retaliation for Spain’s alliance with the United States in the war on terror and its contribution of soldiers to the US-led coalition in Iraq.

"Mrs. Arroyo committed a blunder in involving our country in the global anti-terrorism campaign when we should have stayed on the sidelines and let the countries with the capabilities handle this problem," Enrile said.

She may have "succeeded in projecting herself as a tough-talking leader against terrorism... but her stance might only open the Philippines to reprisals from foreign terrorist organizations like what happened in Madrid," the KNP statement added.

Mrs. Arroyo, seeking a full six-year term in the May 10 elections, goes up against KNP standard-bearer Fernando Poe Jr., a popular movie star in the presidential elections with surveys showing the two in a virtual dead-heat for the presidency.

Mrs. Arroyo has been a staunch ally of the US-led war on terror and supported the war in Iraq, sending a contingent of 96 soldiers, police and medical workers to help US-led occupation forces after Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled.

In return, the United States has provided the Philippines with military assistance in crushing local Muslim guerrillas allegedly linked to the al-Qaeda terror network.

Moral Aspect Of Support

In a public forum called "Global Day of Action to end the US-UK Occupation of Iraq" in Manila, Guingona joined cause-oriented and religious groups in expressing "unity with the people of Iraq, the non-combatants and innocent civilians who suffered physical collateral damage over the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq."

"The President is the principal architect and implementor of the nation’s foreign policy. Our Constitution mandates that we must have an independent foreign policy and maintain friendly relations with all countries that are friendly to us," he said.

Guingona expressed "grief for those who died in the US-Iraq war without justifiable cause," calling attention to the "moral aspect" of the conflict "where it is clear that might does not mean right, where the strong went ahead with their one-sided offense that brought devastation to an entire nation and people."

"The question here is what having an independent policy means," Guingona added.

"I grant it to the President that it is her authority to make such determination. It is her right to chart, to formulate, and to implement the country’s foreign policy at this time," he said.

Malacañang earlier said the President will not waver in her support of US operations in Iraq despite fears that bombings in Spain could mean Islamic militants are now targeting American allies.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the government remains committed to keeping the Filipino peacekeeping and humanitarian contingent in Iraq even as the newly elected socialist government in Spain ordered the withdrawal of Spanish troops from the war-torn country.

Bunye, however, said the government has no plans to pull out a 96-member Philippine contingent from Iraq.

Other key aides said the Philippines’ support for the US-led occupation of Iraq did not increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks here.

"At this point, we have not seen any indications of a shift in our posture as far as Iraq is concerned. We know that there are some risks involved but these risks are also present even for those countries which have no presence in Iraq," Bunye said.

He cited the case of the terror bombing in Bali, Indonesia in October 2002. "They (Bali resort) were attacked simply because they are a weak target," he said.

Bunye assured the people though that Mrs. Arroyo would be willing to take a second look into the country’s foreign policy as soon as the Palace receives official recommendations of the Senate committee on foreign relations, which reportedly recommended a complete troop pullout from Iraq.

Bunye clarified the Philippine contingent in Iraq is a peacekeeping force engaged in a humanitarian mission, unlike Spanish forces who are actively involved in the conflict.

Administration senatorial candidate Parouk Hussin defended Malacañang, saying fears of attacks on the Philippines and other countries which supported the US over Iraq are unfounded.

"Whether you have troops in Iraq or not you are not sure when terrorists will strike," Hussin said.

Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Satur Ocampo, for his part, called on Mrs. Arroyo to reconsider her support for the US coalition forces in Iraq and withdraw the Philippine contingent from the war-torn nation.

He also claimed the position made by Mrs. Arroyo would further make the Philippines vulnerable to reprisals from terror groups.

The March 11 bombings in Madrid that killed at least 200 people came days before Spanish voters went to the polls at the weekend. The conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar - a stalwart American ally - was defeated as voters blamed him for provoking the attacks amid mounting evidence that Islamic militants linked to al-Qaeda were involved.

Like Spain, the Philippines has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the US-led war in Iraq. — With Marichu Villanueva, Sammy Santos, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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