MANILA,  November 15, 2004
By Marvin Sy - A "cordial" phone conversation between US President George W. Bush and President Arroyo Wednesday night is proof of the strong ties between the two countries, Malacañang said yesterday.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said Bush called up Mrs. Arroyo at around 8 p.m. Wednesday, and the conversation lasted 10 minutes.

"He told (her), let us keep our friendship strong," Bunye said.

The call was apparently meant to ease differences between the two leaders that emerged after Mrs. Arroyo decided in July to withdraw the Philippines’ small humanitarian contingent from Iraq to save the life of Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz, who was kidnapped by Iraqi militants.

Mrs. Arroyo had originally been one of the staunchest supporters of Bush’s war on terror and his decision to invade Iraq.

Her decision to give in to the demands of the Iraqi kidnappers so De la Cruz could be freed was bitterly criticized by Washington, which recalled US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone for "consultations."

American officials said the Philippines’ decision was a mistake because it would embolden terrorists, encourage more kidnappings and place lives of other coalition members in Iraq at greater risk.

The US government, however, maintained that the Philippines remained a partner and friend in the fight against international terrorism.

Bunye said Mrs. Arroyo congratulated Bush on his victory over the Democrats’ John Kerry, which gave Bush another four years in the White House.

She noted that Filipinos view Bush’s win as a "triumph of values." Bush had pegged his election campaign as a fight to return to old-fashioned "moral values."

Bush was quick to add that it was also a victory of his foreign policy, which has sparked controversy in several arenas.

His decision to assault Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the US invited harsh criticism from several parts of the world and caused divisions within the United Nations.

On the other hand, Bush’s decision was seen by others as a strong statement against terrorism and his commitment to protecting his homeland.

Bush and Mrs. Arroyo will see each other during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Summit in Santiago, Chile, this weekend, along with other world leaders.

The summit will tackle economic issues affecting the region, the campaign against terrorism, and — for the first time — the issue of corruption.

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Franklin Ebdalin said last August it is only normal that countries sometimes clash on policy decisions since each country has different interests to uphold.

He explained that the Philippines’ national interest, as shown during the hostage crisis last July, is to protect Filipinos above everything else but this apparently did not coincide with US interests.

Ebdalin stressed that the withdrawal of the Filipino troops from Iraq did not mean the Philippines’ commitment to fight terrorism has weakened.

"Our vital interests lie wherever there are Filipinos. Our seven million overseas Filipinos are in over 165 countries and on ships on all the world’s oceans. It is within this reality... of the Filipino diaspora that we (crafted) our foreign policy," he said.

Ebdalin explained that while "our allies are important to us... (they) will have to understand that even as we hold them in the highest esteem, the protection of overseas Filipinos will have to come first."

There were questions raised about the status of the Philippines’ membership in the "coalition of the willing" after US Secretary of State Colin Powell hinted that the country is already out of the loop.

Then Foreign Affairs Secretary Delia Albert responded by saying the Philippines is still part of the coalition even without contributing any more personnel to the coalition’s peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts in Iraq.

The pullout by one of Washington’s biggest backers in the war on terror was considered a major blow to the unity of the US-led coalition in Iraq.

The July hostage crisis had put Mrs. Arroyo squarely between domestic concerns and her previously strong commitment to the US.

With a terror threat of its own, the Philippines has been relying on Washington to beef up its poorly armed military to battle al-Qaeda-linked groups in Mindanao. There had been concerns that local Muslim militants, such as the Abu Sayyaf group, may be encouraged once the government has agreed to meet the demand of the Iraqi captors.

Another Filipino has since been kidnapped in Iraq while a Filipino diplomat working with the United Nations has been abducted in Afghanistan.

The US has a defense pact with its former Southeast Asian colony and is helping Manila train soldiers hunting Islamic militants allied with foreign terror groups in the southern Philippines. — With AFP report

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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