PH will no longer send military 'battalions' to accompany Iraq evacuees

MANILA, Philippines – The government has changed its mind about sending “two battalions” from the military to assist Filipinos evacuating Iraq, the Department of National Defense said late Sunday, January 12.

During a meeting of the government’s Committee on Repatriation on Thursday, January 9, the foreign affairs and labor departments, as well as special envoy to the Middle East Roy Cimatu, “commented that it may not be wise to send uniformed servicemen to the Middle East due to the sensitivities of the countries there,” committee head Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement on Sunday.

President Rodrigo Duterte earlier ordered the deployment of “two military battalions” to the Middle East to assist in the government effort to bring home Filipinos from conflict-threatened Iraq, Lorenzana said on Wednesday, January 8.

The troop deployment was supposed to be part of a bigger plan for the military to send a number of its aircraft and vessels to the Middle East to transport the evacuees.

The plan raised questions of whether deploying uniformed servicemen to the volatile region might draw danger rather than repel it.

On Sunday afternoon, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr tweeted, “sending foreign troops to [a] foreign land is an act of war.”

In fact, the Department of Foreign Affairs has had to work on diplomatic clearances for the military assets, or else they could not be deployed.

“Hence, it was agreed that we recommend the sending of a small contingent of servicemen instead of two battalions, but they will be in civilian attire and will not be armed should they be needed on the ground,” Lorenzana said Sunday night.

Besides, two battalions – about 1,000 soldiers – would have taken up space on the military ships, “leaving very little or nothing for the repatriates,” the defense chief added.

Lorenzana said he had taken up the matter with Duterte and gotten the President's approval.

The Philippine Navy is preparing the “frigate” or offshore patrol vessel BRP Gregorio del Pilar and the landing dock ship BRP Davao del Sur to sail for the Middle East.

Cimatu left for the Middle East on Thursday after the meeting with Lorenzana. On Saturday, January 11, Cimatu was in Qatar, coordinating the repatriation effort. 

There are around 1,600 Filipinos in Iraq, and thousands more in other parts of the Middle East.

The recent killing of top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani by a US air strike and the subsequent missile strike by Iran on a US target, both in Iraq, have threatened to plunge the Middle East into yet another war.

Washington and Tehran have both scaled down on threatening military action on one another, but the Philippine government said it would push through with taking Filipinos out of Iraq.

A first batch of at least 14 evacuees brought from Baghdad to Doha, Qatar, were scheduled to fly to Manila on Sunday. – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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