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Manila Begins Withdrawing Some Troops from Iraq - 2004-07-14

The Philippine government says it has begun withdrawing at least a portion of its 51-member peacekeeping contingent from Iraq, apparently part of a negotiated settlement to free a Filipino hostage held in Iraq by Islamic militants. The move is welcome news in the Philippines, but it is provoking criticism from Washington and elsewhere.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Delia Albert says some troops are already pulling out of Iraq, well ahead of their scheduled August 20 departure date.

"The Foreign Affairs Ministry is coordinating the pullout of the humanitarian contingent with the Ministry of National Defense,? she said. ?As of today, our head count is down from 51 to 43."

The announcement does not clarify the extent to which the government has actually changed plans, or when all 51 of the troops will leave Iraq. But it does appear at the moment that Manila has given in to the demands of the kidnappers in Iraq.

The militants captured Angelo de la Cruz, 46, last week and threatened to behead him unless the tiny Philippine contingent left Iraq by July 20, one month early.

The Philippine public has rallied behind Mr. de la Cruz, and there is tremendous political pressure on President Gloria Arroyo to secure his release.

Mr. de la Cruz's whereabouts are still unclear, but the Foreign Ministry says he is safe and no longer facing execution.

The United States, which considers the Philippines a strong ally in the war on terror, expressed frustration over Manila's apparent deal with the militants.

"As you know our policy is not to negotiate or provide benefits to terrorists," said State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher. "We think that can send the wrong signal and that is why we are disappointed to see statements like this."

The Australian government similarly expressed its disappointment, and a major Manila newspaper also criticized the move.

The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq has come under increasing strain following a rash of kidnappings of civilians and soldiers by Islamic militants.

The United States, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Bulgaria have all faced similar hostage situations, and a South Korean and a Bulgarian have been beheaded by their kidnappers.