Southeast Asia

Iraqi crisis: Terror fallout in the Philippines
By Marco Garrido

MANILA - Should war break out in Iraq, the Philippines will most certainly feel it, and not just in terms of economic costs and domestic popular opposition to the war, but in the worst way - in terms of terror.

A local insurgency group has pledged to launch retaliatory attacks against the government and US interests in the event on war. Terror threats made by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) to be carried out by its armed wing, the New People's Army, have ratcheted up public anxiety over an imminent war and have put President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo under increasing pressure to revise her administration's position on the war in favor of neutrality.

Mounting apprehension
The Arroyo administration has taken pains to craft a position on the war that balances contradictory political pressures.

On the one hand, the Philippines is the United States' closest ally in the region and, more pertinent, the recipient of massive amounts of US military and economic aid. Arroyo's recent visit with US President George W Bush fetched her country a 15-fold increase in US foreign military financing, from US$1.9 million to $29 million in 2003, $1 billion worth in trade benefits, as well as Bush's assurance that he would help Arroyo combat terrorism "in any way she suggests".

Hence when asked by the United States to give it "general support" in the event of war, Arroyo reiterated her commitment, per a Mutual Defense Treaty, to provide political, logistic, and humanitarian support. She has since had to refine her position in the face of growing domestic apprehension over the likelihood of war.

Such apprehension is well-founded. War jitters have already dragged the peso down to a two-year low and have jacked up the price of world crude oil to a two-year high; the lives and livelihoods of the 60,000 overseas Filipino workers based in Kuwait remain in jeopardy; and the Philippines confronts the prospect of shortages in oil and basic goods.

Moreover, political opposition to war in Iraq is fierce and public opposition to Philippine involvement in the war widespread. A number of legislators have urged Arroyo to declare Philippine neutrality. One prominent senator has lambasted the president for her "canine devotion" to the United States. The clamor raised by anti-war demonstrations staged by Muslim and student communities continues to mount. Leftist quarters have even demanded Arroyo's impeachment for endangering Filipino lives and violating a constitutional provision renouncing the use of war as an instrument of state policy.

Fallout in terror
But the most worrisome development has been the threat of terror attacks by local insurgency groups. In addition to the "sympathy attacks" vowed by the CPP, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has warned against retaliatory attacks by Islamic militant groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf. The AFP expects these groups to target national infrastructure, foreign embassies, US investments, and the more than 1,000 US troops stationed in Mindanao for counter-terror military exercises.

"As I've said, nobody will be spared," General Dionisio Santiago told the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines. "What [these groups] will be doing will be just to sow terror so that everybody will realize, and to make people feel, that being sympathetic with the Americans will not work."

Five AFP battalions have been placed on standby in Manila in case such threats materialize.

Ominous links
Recent disclosures by Philippine intelligence have made the threat of imminent terror attacks all the more real. In a series of increasingly serious accusations, the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) has linked Iraqi operatives and the Iraqi Embassy with a number of local insurgency groups, including the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf.

The NICA alleges that in addition to funding the anti-US rallies of various protest groups, Iraqi operatives tapped members of the MILF to launch terror attacks in the event a US-led coalition invades Iraq. Furthermore, the NICA charged a top Iraqi Embassy official, second secretary Husham Hussain, with collaborating with the Abu Sayyaf in a bomb attack last October that killed an American soldier and three Filipino civilians.

That the government has since expelled the diplomat comes as small consolation to a people on alert.

An equivocal position
Caught between an indispensable alliance on the one hand and mounting public apprehension over the fallout of war on the other, Arroyo has elected to equivocate. Or at least she has struck a fine position that would seem to have it both ways: squarely behind the US case against Iraq yet unwilling to commit to action without the backing of the United Nations.

"Our foreign policy is based on fear," notes Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Manuel Villar. "In this particular case, we're clearly afraid of the US so we will be supporting the US." One might add that it is fear too - of popular opposition to the war and terrorist retaliation - that keeps the Philippines from supporting the US all the way.

While Arroyo said she felt "convinced" by the evidence US Secretary of State Colin Powell marshaled against Iraq last week, she demurred to support his conclusion - immediate forcible disarmament. Instead she opted for a course that promised more safety than either side could: to act with the community of nations. Whether wise or not in the final count, it is certainly the more astute move, since it keeps the Philippines from further distinguishing itself in the eyes of those who would avenge themselves on America's friends. At the same time, she gives enough lip service to the US position, which probably resembles her own, to remain in America's good graces.

Many battlefields
In the end, however, the Arroyo administration's careful position will not spare the Philippines the economic and political costs of war, and it will probably not save the country from a hail of terror attacks once the war begins in earnest.

There is no mistaking that this is a war that is already being suffered in its threat and will no doubt exact greater suffering in its reality. Most notably, not all its casualties will be Iraqi or American or British. They will include the victims of retaliatory terror attacks. It will be a war fought in proxy throughout the world in numerous undesignated battlefields; not only in the Philippines but in Indonesia, Malaysia, and, most certainly, the United States.

This means that this will be a war with greater stakes than the disarmament of Iraq. Its outcome will influence the future willingness of nations like the Philippines to stick their necks out, even this much, for the United States. For the Philippines, the question is not really whether the US will win or lose but how much it will lose.

(©2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact [email protected] for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
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