US, Philippines Mend Fences After Iraq Pullout Row

July 7, 2008 - 8:15 PM

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Philippines President Gloria Arroyo and President Bush have cleared the air in a telephone call following strains in the relationship resulting from Manila's capitulation to terrorists in Iraq earlier this year.

Arroyo's office said Sunday that Bush had called Arroyo and urged her to "keep our friendship strong."

Relations between the U.S. and its former Southeast Asian colony were damaged after Arroyo agreed last July to withdraw a small military contingent from Iraq at the insistence of a terrorist group which had kidnapped a Filipino civilian and threatened to kill him.

Up until that much-criticized decision, the Philippines had been considered one of Washington's most loyal regional allies in the war against Islamic terrorism.

Arroyo spokesman Ignacio Bunye said in a statement that during the "very cordial" conversation, Arroyo had congratulated Bush on his recent election victory, which she said had been viewed in the Philippines as a "triumph of values."

Bush had added that it was also a victory for his foreign policy, added Bunye, who said the fact Bush had called was "a pleasant surprise."

The two leaders are due to hold talks on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit at the weekend in Santiago, Chile, where their meeting will focus on "security matters," her office said.

Although the Philippines contribution in Iraq was only 51 strong, its premature withdrawal came as a blow to the unity of the U.S.-led coalition, already affected by the earlier pullout by Spain's newly election socialist government of a larger Spanish contingent.

Arroyo had come under considerable domestic pressure to back down after kidnappers in Iraq seized truck driver Angelo de la Cruz and said he would be killed unless the Filipino forces left.

When she agreed, the decision won plaudits at home, but also brought criticism from conservatives who warned of the potential harm to crucial ties with the U.S.

The State Department, which a day earlier had praised Arroyo for a "decision not to give in to terrorists," expressed its concern, and the U.S. ambassador was recalled for consultations.

Arroyo's government argued that it acted in the interests of the millions of Filipinos who are employed in Middle East countries.

Critics said capitulating to terrorists would only embolden them and make life more dangerous for other foreign nationals in Iraq, scores of whom have been kidnapped this year.

Another Filipino has since been kidnapped in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, a Filipino diplomat attached to the U.N. has been abducted.

Over the months since the July pullout, Philippines officials sought to play down the rift, and counter-terror cooperation continued. Last week, the FBI hosted a terrorism seminar near Manila for senior police officers.

The Philippines has been grappling with a terrorist insurgency for a decade in the predominantly Muslim southern Mindanao region, where the military has undergone training by U.S. specialists.

"Our 100-year relationship with the U.S. is stronger than any temporary disagreements," Bunye told a local news network on Monday.

In a global survey of opinions last September about the U.S. presidential election campaign, the Philippines was one of just four countries whose poll respondents favored Bush and his policies over Sen. John Kerry and his.

In 31 of the total 35 countries surveyed by the University of Maryland's program on international policy attitudes, respondents said they would prefer a Kerry victory.

Of the four exceptions, the Philippines favored Bush most strongly (57 points to 32), followed by Nigeria (33-27), Poland (31-26) and Thailand (33-30).

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.