(IPS) MANILA --
Gloria Arroyo said Nov. 18 that Philippine troops stationed in Iraq would be pulled out swiftly if the security situation threatened their safety, as U.S. forces let loose a barrage of mortar fire in the northern town of Tikrit overnight, which a spokesman said Tuesday aimed to demonstrate the troops' capabilities.
According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), Arroyo said in a written statement, "We shall closely monitor developments directly from the ground and we will ensure that our nationals will be kept out of harm's way and will be immediately evacuated if called for by the shifting situation."
"We are continually assessing the security conditions in Iraq to sharpen our options," she added.
The Philippines has deployed 178 soldiers, police and humanitarian workers to Iraq and pledged to the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council last month to boost their number to 500 early next year.
But the Filipino leader, the most vocal southeast Asian ally of President George W. Bush in his war on terror, said: "We have to balance our international commitments against the safety of our own peacekeepers and humanitarian workers."
The Filipinos are part of a U.S.-led international force occupying Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in April.
Filipino military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Lucero said there has not been any order from the Presidential palace for the contingent to pull out.
He stressed that none have been hurt in the escalating guerrilla campaign that has targeted U.S. and other coalition forces as well as Iraqis working for the occupation forces.
"That's a political decision, the Armed Forces of the Philippines will abide by any directive from Malacanang (Presidential palace) relative to the Filipino commitment in the global fight against terrorism," Lucero told reporters.
"We are very much aware what our troops are fighting in Iraq and our troops are also very much aware that they did not go there for a party nor for a picnic," he added.
"We will not be cowed by these threats and even these reports that the Philippines might be one of the targets of this JI (Jemaah Islamiyah) or these al-Qaeda threats."
The military claims the JI is the Southeast Asian proxy of al-Qaeda, the group blamed by Washington for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
On Nov. 13, Japan said it would delay sending troops to Iraq until next year, arguing conditions were too unstable in Iraq to send troops before the end of the year.
The Japanese blow to U.S. efforts to deploy international troops in Iraq to lessen the pressure on its forces came only hours after an attack on an Italian military base in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah claimed 18 Italian soldiers and nine Iraqis.
On Nov. 12, at least 25 people were killed and 13 others wounded in an attack on an Italian police base in southern Iraq.
In Tikrit, meanwhile, the US army's 4th Infantry Division carried out a noisy display of power that lasted more than a hour, shaking the ground, rattling windows and sending flashes into the night sky, according to AFP.
The troops mainly fired from the 4th ID's forward headquarters in Tikrit, the hometown of ousted president Saddam Hussein 180 kilometers (110 miles) north of Baghdad.
A spokesman at the base said the firing, conducted around midnight, was part of "Ivy Cyclone II," an operation they say "aimed at demonstrating that U.S. troops are able and determined to use all the weapons at their disposal against anti-U.S. forces in Iraq.
"It's an element of this and a show of our capabilities," the spokesman said.
Ivy Cyclone II was launched Sunday, when two satellite-guided missiles were fired from outside Baghdad onto targets as far as 220 kilometers (135 miles) away.
Early Monday, 4th ID troops staged a combined forces operation, firing mortars, tank cannons and helicopter guns at areas that had been used in attacks against them.
They also paraded their combat tanks and fighting vehicles through the center of Tikrit, which has been a hotbed of guerilla-style resistance attacks since Washington declared an end to major hostilities on May 1.
In a related development, a soldier from the U.S. 1st Armored Division patrolling the Baghdad region has died of a "non-hostile gunshot wound," the occupation ground forces said Tuesday.
An investigation has been launched into the soldier's death Monday morning, the statement added without elaborating.
On the political arena, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi has offered renewed assurances to visiting Iraqi Governing Council chairman Jalal Talabani that Iran will not interfere in Iraq's affairs, the state news agency IRNA said Tuesday, according to AFP.
"Tehran's policy is not to interfere in Iraqi internal affairs," Kharazi told Talabani, who also heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and is in the Islamic republic for a two-day visit.
"Tehran is ready to help bring about stability to Iraq," Kharazi said, calling for the "establishment of an independent and strong Iraqi government based on the will of the Iraqi people."
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami for the first time Monday expressly recognized the U.S.-installed interim Governing Council in Iraq after meeting with Talabani.
Khatami said Iran's government did "recognize the Iraqi Governing Council and we believe it is capable, with the Iraqi people, of managing the affairs of the country and taking measures leading toward independence."
Previously, the Islamic republic has been content to officially consider the Council a "step" toward putting power back in the hands of Iraqis and refused to recognize an authority installed by a foreign occupation.
Relations between Iran and Iraq, who fought a bloody eight-year war until 1988, have gradually improved since the US-led force ousted Saddam Hussein in April.
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