Philippines Leader Does Not Regret Withdrawing Troops

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Philippines President Gloria Arroyo says she does not regret her decision to withdraw the country's small military contingent from Iraq to save the life of a Filipino hostage threatened with death if she did not act.

"Every life is important," Arroyo said in a televised address after news broke that Angelo de la Cruz had been freed and was in safe hands.

Terrorists holding the 46-year-old truck driver threatened to decapitate him unless Manila withdrew its 51-strong contingent by July 20. The government yielded and the troops - whose mandate was to have ended next month - left Iraq by the deadline.

De la Cruz was delivered to the embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Baghdad on Tuesday and then handed over to the Philippines mission.

The now-withdrawn peacekeepers constituted the Philippines' contribution to a U.S.-led multinational force of some 30 nations engaged in the effort to rebuild Iraq and secure its new government.

Along with the interim government in Baghdad, Washington had urged Arroyo not to capitulate.

The State Department said Tuesday it welcomed de la Cruz's release.

"It's good to see that he's safe," spokesman Richard Boucher told a press briefing, but added that the U.S. policy on giving in to terrorists' demands had not changed.

Islamic extremists have carried out a spate of kidnappings of foreigners in Iraq in recent months, and have brutally killed at least three hostages - an American, a South Korean and a Bulgarian.

In a speech last Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell appealed to coalition partners not to allow the hostage-takers in Iraq to succeed.

He praised South Korea and Bulgaria for "not faltering, even though they are being tested mightily by kidnappings and by beheadings."

"Bowing to this kind of kidnapping threat only encourages it and only makes it more difficult."

De la Cruz was one of some 4,000 Filipinos working in Iraq, and among some 7.7 million of his countrymen and women employed abroad, known as overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

Citing those workers in foreign countries, Arroyo said in her remarks that her government had "a deep national interest in their well-being wherever they live and work."

But it is precisely the future safety of OFWs - there are more than one million in the Middle East - that some commentators have warned could be endangered by Arroyo's decision.

"Any life saved is cause for jubilation," the Philippine Star said in an editorial Wednesday. "We can only hope that one happy ending won't lead to tragedy for many others."

'Bravery in the face of danger'

Much of the press commentary Wednesday was positive, applauding the government for acting to save the hostage's life. Earlier polling showed the majority of Filipinos to be opposed to the Iraq war, and Arroyo lost ground over her decision to back the U.S.

When she sent the troops last August - shortly after the deadly bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad - other allies including Japan were hesitating over their plans because of the security situation.

At the time, Arroyo dismissed calls at home to postpone the dispatch, saying the troops heading for Iraq "symbolize the bravery of the Filipino in the face of danger and our willingness to face danger for the good of others."

The hostage crisis began on July 7 when the Arabic satellite network Al-Jazeera screened a video clip showing a pleading de la Cruz and masked gunmen vowing to kill him unless the Philippines withdrew its troops within 72 hours. The truck driver had reportedly been captured west of Baghdad while driving oil supplies from Saudi Arabia.

Manila initially said it would not give in, but over time vague and sometimes contradictory statements began to emerge. The deadline was extended to July 20, one month before the 51 troops were due to return home.

Late last week the contingent was whittled down, and the last soldiers left Iraq by road for Kuwait on Monday.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Wednesday he sympathized with Arroyo in the "awful dilemma" she faced and was pleased de la Cruz was safe, but believed the decision was a mistake.

"I don't believe that you can negotiate with terrorists," he said in a radio interview. "I don't believe in the long run it is going to buy the Philippines any greater immunity from future terrorist attacks.

"The record of al Qaeda and other organizations is that they hold weakness in contempt, that if people make concessions, in the medium to longer term they will still pursue those people and they will see them as a softer and more vulnerable target," he said.

Howard last year signed an anti-terrorism agreement with Arroyo, making Australia the second-largest outside contributor to defense training in the Philippines, after the U.S.

See earlier story:
Last Philippines Troops Leave Iraq; Country Split over Decision (Jul. 20, 2004)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow