MANILA,  July 15, 2004
By Michaela P. del Callar and Dona Policar  -  The United States and its major allies are displeased with the Philippine government's decision Tuesday to pull out its small military contingent from Iraq to meet the demands of Iraqi militants who have threatened to behead kidnapped Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz.

Analysts yesterday said they foresee more trouble for the administration of President Arroyo in the diplomatic front, and the Philippine decision would embolden further terrorist attacks on Filipinos.

A US Embassy statement also yesterday said the decision “sends the wrong signal” to terrorists.

“We are disappointed by the Philippine deputy foreign secretary's announcement that his country's troop contingent would be pulling out 'as soon as possible,' at a time when the new Iraqi government is fighting for peace and stability,” the embassy added.

It was referring to Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Rafael Seguis' announcement over the Dubai-based al-Jazeera television network Tuesday morning that the Philippine contingent will be withdrawn from Iraq “as soon as possible.”

Foreign Affairs Secretary Delia Albert, in a televised statement, confirmed the gradual pullout of the troops from Iraq.

Albert said the Department of Foreign Affairs is contingent with the Defense department.

“As of today, our headcount is down from 51 to 43,” Albert said.

The US Embassy said they are seeking clarification on Manila's change of policy.

“Naturally, we have had discussions with the Philippine government including a personal meeting between President Arroyo and Ambassador Francis Ricciardone and these discussions are ongoing,” the embassy added.

The Philippine and US governments have always been against offering any sort of concessions to terrorists.

But Manila reversed its policy Tuesday and succumbed to pressure from De la Cruz' captors to pull out its troops from Iraq to save the Filipino from being decapitated.

“There is no excuse for kidnapping, murder or other acts of terrorism. We call upon the terrorists to release Angelo de la Cruz immediately,” the US Embassy said.

In Sydney, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer appealed to the Arroyo administration to reverse its decision to bow to the demands of militants threatening to kill De la Cruz, considered a dramatic turnaround by one of the strongest backers of the US-led global war on terror.

Downer telephoned the Filipino ambassador to Australia, Cristina Ortega, to express Australia's sympathy and to discuss her government's position.

“He strongly urged the Philippines not to give in to the demands of terrorists because we will all pay a price if they do,” a spokesman for Downer said.

“If countries give in to terrorists, it will only encourage them to kidnap more hostages in an attempt to change the foreign policy of countries. Australia could not and would never do that,” Downer said.

He told Ortega that Australia realized Mrs. Arroyo's government was in a horrible and trying situation but urged her to maintain her original timetable of Aug. 20 for the troop withdrawal.

Islamic militants kidnapped De la Cruz last week and threatened to behead the 46-year-old unless Mrs. Arroyo advanced the scheduled pullout of the contingent by one month to July 20.

A deadline set by the Iraqi Islamic Army-Khaled bin Al-Waleed Corps for the Philippines to meet the group's troop withdrawal demand expired early Wednesday, but negotiations continued in Iraq through intermediaries.

The insurgents had told Mrs. Arroyo that De la Cruz, a poor father of eight, had already been moved to the place where he would be killed if she did not change her mind.

But while the US is asking for an explanation, opposition Rep. Imee Marcos (Ilocos Norte) expressed belief that Mrs. Arroyo made a calculated decision since she foresees the defeat of US President George W. Bush in the US presidential polls in November.

“She accurately calculated a Bush defeat by Sen. John Kerry in November, which is why the government has agreed to withdraw the Philippine humanitarian contingent from Iraq,” Marcos said.

“It's quite clear...GMA is betting that Bush will lose to Kerry and that she could afford to bring our troops back home. Her administration has more to lose in the political fallout of the Angelo De la Cruz kidnap by Iraqi militants,” She noted.

The legislator also believed that there would be sweeping foreign policy changes in the US once Kerry, a Democrat, wins over Bush.

“Sen. Kerry has been vocally opposed to the reasons cited by Bush in invading Iraq and he has been steadily gaining according to latest monitoring reports, while Bush is on a steep decline. With Kerry in the White House, GMA's move could prove to be the correct one,” Marcos said.

Meanwhile, administration lawmakers appealed to the Filipino people to accept and understand the decision made by the President.

Liberal Party Rep. Rufino Biazon said that in pulling out the troops, the country is now faced with criticisms from allies in the “coalition of the willing,” particularly from the US.

“We might even be seen by both our allies and the terrorists as weak in the face of terrorism. It might even embolden other groups, even local rebels and terrorists, to do the same because the government could easily change its policies,” Biazon added.

On the other hand, if the President adopted a hard line and allow De la Cruz to be beheaded, Mrs. Arroyo could not afford endless criticisms from the Filipino people.

“What we need now is for us to understand the position that our government has taken in order to save De la Cruz,” another administration congressman, Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert “Ace” Barbers, said.

The analysts said the Arroyo administration will pay a heavy price for its decision.

Not only has Mrs. Arroyo hurt the country's international standing by caving in to threats, she also puts a million Filipinos working in the volatile Middle East at risk from terrorists who now know they can pressure the government by victimizing Filipinos, they noted.

Reynaldo Parungao, a former Philippine ambassador to Iraq, said in a television interview “there will certainly be repercussions” to backing out of Iraq.

“We have international commitments, obligations. We are signatories to a lot of agreements and treaties,” Parungao added.

“Certainly, we (can) expect to be ostracized and eventually be treated like an international pariah that nobody wants to deal with. Our agreements and treaties and... trade arrangements with other countries might suffer,” he said.

Even Senate President Franklin Drilon, a close ally of Mrs. Arroyo, cautioned that while it was important to save the life of the hostage, “our actions must not be interpreted in any way as submitting to the terrorists' demands.”

Parungao noted that Bulgaria, which has a larger contingent in Iraq, did not back down to threats despite the kidnapping of two of its citizens. One of them has been killed by the abductors (See related story).

But Clarita Carlos, a political scientist from the University of the Philippines, said Mrs. Arroyo was right to put the welfare of a Filipino before foreign commitments even to the country's main ally.

“Angelo de la Cruz is a metaphor of all overseas Filipino workers,” Carlos noted, referring to the more than five million Filipinos who work overseas and who are lionized as heroes at home for the millions of dollars they send home to their families.

“We have to show we are a sovereign country. We have to define what is our national interest, not (US President) George W. Bush. Who cares if they (the Americans) are unhappy?” She remarked.

The Philippines had been a key supporter of the US-led invasion of Iraq and the international campaign against terrorism. The country also relies heavily on US military assistance to fight local terrorists and insurgents.

With reports from AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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