Philippines: The Filipino Hostage Crisis in Iraq

2004

Julius J Bautista

In early July, the Philippine government withdrew its 51 personnel in Iraq one month earlier than the scheduled pullout date, joining Spain and several Latin American nations in effectively renouncing membership to the 'Coalition of the Willing'. This decision follows from the hostage crisis involving Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz, who was abducted near Falluja by a group known as Khaled Ibn al-Wal id. President Arroyo's decision to save De la Cruz has earned her scathing criticism from Australian and American officials, who have accused her of encouraging further acts of terrorism. Her decision, however, might more suitably be seen as a compliance with Filipino public opinion than a capitulation to terrorist blackmail.

It is doubtful that the recently re-elected Arroyo could have endured the local political fallout had De la Cruz been executed. Arroyo's 'State of the Nation Address' shortly after De la Cruz's release reiterated how the Philippine economy is being kept afloat by remittances from overseas contract workers (OFW), including over a million in the gulf. De la Cruz himself, like Flor Contemplacion before him, has become emblematic of the collective plight of OFWs. The continued presence of troops was thought to further endanger the many Filipino workers determined to stay on in the gulf in spite of the recent crisis. Looking after these 'modern day heroes' has always been high on the agenda, and in this instance the government showed that the welfare of its citizens must always be more important than acquiescence to even its most powerful allies.

In any case, the Filipino role in the Iraqi invasion had become increasingly indefensible. There is a perception that the Philippines has gotten relatively little in return for its role in the coalition, particularly by way of lucrative reconstruction contracts or assistance. The withdrawal of troops is seen as acknowledging the illegality of the Iraqi invasion and the dubious premises upon which the war on terror was waged. This has been compounded by the uncertainty over George W Bush's re-election, which has placed in sharper focus the presumed necessity of maintaining Filipino subservience to US interests in the gulf.

Ironically, even as Filipino troops were returning from Iraq, more US troops were arriving in the Philippines for 'Balikatan' exercises against Muslim extremists in the south, whose ties to the al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah networks have become increasingly pronounced. Though the Philippines government insists that this latest crisis does not threaten its relations with its closest ally, the full extent to which the withdrawal will affect bilateral ties remains to be seen.

WATCHPOINT: Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer have been particularly forthright in their condemnation of the Philippines. The Philippines government has not been as keen on watering down tensions with Australia as it has been with the US - anti-Australian protests waged both in Manila and in Melbourne seem validated by Foreign Secretary Delia Domingo Albert's rebuke of the Australian envoy in the Philippines.

 

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