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Arroyo Defends Early Troop Withdrawal From Iraq - 2004-07-26

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has again defended her country's early exit from Iraq. Ms. Arroyo stood by the decision during her state of the nation address, where she also pledged to improve living conditions for millions of impoverished Filipinos.

In her state of the nation address before the Philippine Congress, President Gloria Arroyo pledged to put ordinary Filipinos at the center of her government's economic agenda.

Ms. Arroyo says that in her second term as president, the nation will put an end to anxiety and uncertainty.

President Arroyo is promising to focus her government's efforts in the next six years on five major areas: creating jobs, fighting corruption, meeting the public's basic needs, improving education, and becoming energy self-reliant.

Poverty is a major problem in the Philippines, where one in 10 people leaves the country for better paying jobs overseas.

During the past two weeks, the issue has been highlighted by the case of a Filipino truck driver kidnapped in Iraq. Angelo dela Cruz, a father of eight, became an example of a Filipino every man who risked his life abroad to provide for his family back home.

He was released last week after Ms. Arroyo agreed to his captors' demands and pulled her country's peacekeepers out of Iraq, to the dismay of the United States and Australia. The troops left Iraq a month earlier than scheduled.

On Monday, President Arroyo defended her action.

"Since I first became president in 2001, my declared foreign policy focus has been to protect the vital interests of the nation, including our eight million overseas Filipinos," she said. "And I cannot apologize for being a protector of my people."

In comments directed at the international community, Ms. Arroyo said her nation remains committed to democracy and has worked "ceaselessly against terrorists and totalitarians."

"For the freedom of our people and the people of the world, we have fought the enemy and taken as good as we gave, not from a safe distance but in close quarters: Bataan, Corregidor, Korea and Vietnam, East Timor, Kosovo, Liberia to name a few," said Ms. Arroyo.

Despite Manila's somewhat strained relations with Washington, the two countries have begun joint military exercises aimed fighting terrorism.

In Quezon City, where she delivered her speech, thousands of protesters challenged Ms. Arroyo to deliver on her past promises to improve life for the average Filipino. Thousands of security forces were deployed to prevent clashes.