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Arroyo Concedes to Workers, Families; Last Filipino Troop Leaves Iraq

by Andrew Kennis

After caving in to grassroots pressure in the form of daily protests led by families of overseas workers, the Philippines finished withdrawing troops and now awaits the release of the Filipino trucker kidnapped by militants.

July 19, 2004 – The Philippines says it has completed the hurried, phased withdrawal of its troops from Iraq today after pulling eleven more soldiers from its peacekeeping force on Friday. The Philippine government is attempting to secure the release of Angelo de la Cruz, a Filipino migrant worker captured in Iraq by militants on July 7 and threatened with decapitation.

Aljazeera first reported the ransom demand on July 8, saying that a fundamentalist group had kidnapped de la Cruz and threatened to kill him unless the Philippines withdrew its troops from Iraq.

Over 100 Filipino troops had initially arrived in Iraq shortly after the occupation started. The Philippine peacekeeping force had already dwindled down to a 51-member squadron before the de la Cruz kidnapping. It further decreased to 43 earlier last week and then to 32 as of Friday.

The kidnappers said de la Cruz would not be released until the last Filipino peacekeeper left Iraq. Today, numerous news sources are reporting that has happened, and all Filipino troops are now in Kuwait.

Angelo de la Cruz, a 46 year-old truck driver and father of eight children, has become a national hero. For many Filipinos, he symbolizes the struggle of over seven million Filipinos working overseas, 1.4 million of them in the Middle East.

Called OFWs, for "overseas Filipino workers," in the local vernacular; they amount to roughly ten percent of the country’s population. More than $10 billion are sent home every year by OFWs, the Toronto Star reports, rendering them an essential part of the Filipino economy and revered by their dependent families who often live in impoverished rural villages across the archipelago.

Filipino Senator Manuel Villar described OFWs as "modern-day heroes who keep the Philippines afloat with their remittances." Villar told the Manila Times that OFWs deserve more rights and privileges than the country currently bestows upon them.

Overseas Filipino workers do have one important right -- that of the vote, even while overseas. Combined with the votes of their extended families at home, Filipinos working abroad constitute a significant electoral bloc, the Toronto Star reports.

"The main reason is because we have so many Filipino workers abroad," progressive political scientist Luis Teodoro told the Toronto Star. "Whatever happens to one truck driver will have meaning to many households, so naturally they are thinking of their own kin."

Since the kidnapping of de la Cruz, daily protests in Manila have grown steadily in intensity. Some 4,000 Catholic priests and bishops released a petition demanding that newly re-elected President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo do everything in her power to gain De la Cruz’s release.

Filipino Senator Rodolfo Biazon bluntly told Time magazine’s European edition that, "Had [Arroyo] not listened to the pulse of the people, she could have been toppled."

"The more than 4,000 Filipino workers in Iraq shouldn’t be there in the first place," said Connie Regalado, head of Migrante, a pressure group for overseas workers. "Most of them are in US military installations, where they’re the first target of Iraqi rebels," Regalado explained to the Associated Press.

"Additionally, we would like President Arroyo not to send troops again and categorically withdraw support to the US coalition in Iraq because it is one reason that could make Filipinos targets of attacks," Migrante’s secretary-general, Maita Santiago, told the Philippine Star.

Countries still maintaining the occupation, including Australia and the United States, as well as the US-installed interim Iraqi government, condemned Arroyo’s decision.

"This kind of action [kidnapping and ransom] cannot be allowed to succeed anywhere in the 21st century, above all not Iraq," US Secretary of State Colin Powell said, in Time Europe.

"It is a mistake and it won’t buy them immunity," added Australian Prime Minister John Howard to the Toronto Star. The Star also reports that Iraq’s new Prime minister, Iyad Allawi, called President Arroyo and pleaded with her not to cancel her country’s Iraq mission.

His efforts failed, though, in what most Philippine papers saw as a necessary response to public sentiment and pressure.

"The [withdrawal] should be seen as a necessary end to a misadventure that started when the Philippines... put its weight behind the United States in the invasion of Iraq," the Philippine Daily Inquirer stated in an editorial last Friday.

The Philippines’ pullout is the latest in a string of departures by other countries, including Spain and Thailand. Following the defeat of former Prime Minister Jose Aznar, a stalwart Bush ally, Spain pulled its troops out from Iraq in April. Thailand announced last week that it has started the withdrawal of its 451-strong force. The announcement ignored an appeal by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for Thailand to delay the pullout beyond the end of September, Reuters reports.

Also in April, Honduras and Nicaragua each removed their own troops from Iraq, citing budget constraints. El Salvador, however, continues to support its 370 troops stationed in Iraq, even amidst a recent change of presidential administrations, becoming the only Central American country with troops still in Iraq.

Philippine legislators, such as Senator Francis Pangilinan, also defended the decision to pull out as a basic practice of democracy. "The Philippines cannot hope to keep its commitments to the international efforts in Iraq if it is unable to marshal critical support back home. Any leader would recognize this fundamental tenet in governance," Senator Pangilinan told the Philippine Star.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Andrew Kennis is a contributing journalist.

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