Recall our soldiers and save our workers

It was just a matter of time before Filipinos would be targets of Iraqi retaliation.  Almost instantly, from the moment American and British invading forces rolled into Baghdad, our workers started streaming into Iraq like famished little ants out to nibble on the remains of a fallen animal. They came as servants and cooks of the occupying forces and as delivery boys of war profiteers from neighboring Arab countries.  In less than a year, over 4000 Filipinos were working in Iraq, with or without the knowledge of the Philippine government. The number does not include workers based in Saudi, Kuwait, and Jordan who regularly commute to and from Baghdad, performing death-defying runs for foreign contractors.

Our workers are not so much intrepid as they are desperate for jobs. For them, now is the time to be in Iraq. The greater the danger the higher the pay. Many are unconcerned with the big picture in which they play marginal and anonymous roles.  Though they serve the occupying forces, they see themselves not as aggressors but as ordinary workers driven by need.  They do not assign any value to the fact that their government was among the first to support and join the US-led coalition that invaded Iraq.

We can’t blame them for not thinking they are possible targets. Having committed itself to support and join the so-called “Coalition of the Willing,” the Arroyo administration took a while before it sent a token force to Iraq. The delegation was billed as a peacekeeping and humanitarian mission. The president must have known the potential danger to which she was exposing the more than a million Filipino workers in the Middle East when she took sides in a war that the United Nations itself would not allow.  The Filipino contingent remained small for financial reasons, and has stayed away from combat.  But in the eyes of Iraqi insurgents, that doesn’t change the fact that Filipinos are part of the invading force.

And so today we come face to face with the one thing we have dreaded most since the beginning of the Iraq war – the deliberate targeting of Filipino workers in order to convey a political message. We should have seen it coming.  Foreign journalists, aid workers, and contract workers have become fair game in a war that respects no limits. The abduction of a Filipino truck driver a few months ago was fair warning.  But his subsequent release produced the kind of complacency from which we are now being roused by the threatened beheading of recently kidnapped worker Angelo de la Cruz.

Ms Arroyo has sent a team to negotiate the release of De la Cruz. It’s more than likely that money will be offered in exchange for his life. For the sake of this unfortunate man and his family, we hope his captors take the money and show him mercy. But one man’s liberation will not erase the danger that is clearly upon our people today in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.

I wish we could all ask them to come home to their families now.  But I am aware that, given a choice between starving at home and dying abroad, our workers will choose the latter.  One hundred and fifty workers were stopped the other day from boarding their flight that was to take them to Iraq via Dubai.  The government could not hold them indefinitely without provoking a riot at the airport.  They were eventually allowed to go – on the fiction that their destination was Dubai not Baghdad.  It’s so typical of the way we sugarcoat the bitter aspects of our national condition. The fact is there is only one way we can significantly reduce the danger that our workers face in Iraq today – and that is by withdrawing the military contingent that serves as a token of our support of the war against the Iraqi nation.

From the start we have said: This is not our war.  This is an unjust and unprovoked war.  This is not a war against terrorism, but merely a continuation of the wars of subjugation and plunder that the West historically waged against the Arab peoples.  Having been ourselves repeatedly victimized by colonialism, our sympathies should lie naturally with the oppressed rather than the conquerors.

But no.  Wanting always to please America and blinded by the prospects of fabulous contracts a postwar Iraq can offer, our government reversed its earlier commitment to take its cue from the UN, and decided to embrace the American war to “free” Iraq. It was a one-sided war from the very beginning.  Saddam’s army was decisively crushed, the leaders of the regime, including Saddam, ran away and were subsequently captured, but the conflict did not stop there. Instead it has grown into a full-blown guerilla war for national liberation.

Mindful of the negative political implications of a prolonged military engagement in Iraq in an election year, George W. Bush on June 28 resorted to the charade of handing over power to an interim Iraqi government led by the ex-CIA operative, Iyad Allawi. This new structure is guided by a US embassy staff of 3000 and defended by 145,000 American troops.  We have a term for this arrangement – a puppet government.  We should be defending Iraqi sovereignty, not participating in its travesty.

It is symptomatic of the mindset of our leaders that Philippine support for the American invasion of Iraq was not an issue in the 2004 presidential election.  A debate on this question would have compelled a review of our country’s deeply flawed foreign policy.  Our people live and work today in more than a hundred countries, yet our government acts as if the only country worth our attention were America.


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