(Editor's note: The Philippines on July 14 began withdrawing members of its small peacekeeping troops from Iraq, bowing to terrorist threats.)
Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - In a bid to save the life of a hostage held by Arab terrorists, the Philippines government appeared Wednesday to be coordinating the early departure of its small military contingent in Iraq -- a move the U.S. and its allies warned could encourage further terrorism.
After two days of ambiguous statements and confusion about exactly what Manila intended to do, Foreign Secretary Delia Albert said in a statement the contingent had already been reduced from 51 to 43.
The foreign affairs department also confirmed that the government would withdraw Philippine forces from Iraq "as soon as possible," a statement interpreted to mean that all the troops would be pulled out ahead of their originally scheduled departure date of Aug. 20.
Philippines television quoted a senior Air Force officer as saying two C-130 transport aircraft were being prepared to airlift the contingent from Iraq.
A terrorist group holding Filipino Angelo de la Cruz, a civilian truck driver, threatened to kill him unless President Gloria Arroyo brought forward the pullout by one month.
Both the U.S. and Australia - a regional partner of the Philippines in counter-terror initiatives - have been seeking clarity from Arroyo's government.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. ambassador had met with Arroyo to discuss the matter, and that Washington was awaiting clarification. A day earlier, Boucher had applauded Manila's "decision not to give in to terrorists."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that any decision by Manila to withdraw its troops ahead of schedule "would send the wrong signal to terrorists."
Some 30 countries have troops in Iraq as part of a U.S.-led multinational coalition helping to rebuild the country and secure the post-Saddam government.
In separate incidents earlier this year, both Japan and South Korea defied demands from terrorists holding their nationals in Iraq, and vowed to continue their commitments. Three Japanese hostages were released in April, but a Korean translator was beheaded by his captors last month.
As is the case in the Philippines, both Japanese and South Korean governments face significant domestic opposition to their decision to send troops to Iraq.
One of two Bulgarian truck drivers seized in Iraq last week was murdered Tuesday, their government confirmed. The man identified as Georgi Lazov died at the hands of the same group which killed Korean Kim Sun-il in June, headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Zarqawi's group, which also claimed responsibility for the killing of American Nick Berg last May, had threatened to kill the Bulgarians unless U.S. forces freed Iraqi prisoners within 24 hours. The fate of the surviving hostage remains unclear.
Iraq's interim national security advisor, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, told the Philippine Star newspaper from Baghdad that Manila's decision would be "read in Iraq in a very negative way... it will be giving in to terrorists."
Australia Wednesday also expressed disappointment about the Philippines decision.
"The South Koreans did the world a favor by saying that they wouldn't be bullied by terrorists," said Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. "If countries cave in to terrorists' demands, then that only encourages the terrorists to become more strident and more aggressive toward other countries as well as that country itself."
In a column published before it became clearer Wednesday that the Philippines would pull out the troops, commentator Alvin Capino wrote in the Today newspaper that Arroyo had no choice but to hold out despite the pressure.
If the government gave in, he wrote, "the millions of Filipino overseas workers, especially those working in the Middle East, would be vulnerable to similar actions from the numerous Islamic terrorist groups who would now see [them] as an easy target if they want to force the Philippine government to do anything."
Because of high unemployment in their country, some seven million Filipinos work abroad and send money home to support their families.
Many of those are in the Middle East, including an estimated 4,000 in Iraq.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.