MANILA: The Philippines on Wednesday ordered the evacuation of its nationals from Iraq amid rising tensions between the US and Iran.
The Philippine government expressed deep concerns over security in the region and raised the threat alert in Iraq to the highest level.
“The Philippine Embassy in Baghdad has been tasked to effect the mandatory evacuation of Filipinos estimated to be around 1,640 in that country,” the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced. The level-4 alert, according to the DFA, is raised when “there is large-scale internal conflict or full-blown external attack.”
The repatriation efforts will be led by Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, who is set to fly to the Middle East on Thursday.
“We will do everything to bring out Filipinos there,” Cimatu said, adding that those who refuse will be forced to leave.
He also said that as Iraq is practically landlocked, Filipinos residing there would either be airlifted if the Baghdad airport is still open, or moved by land to transit points from where they could board ships or planes to the Philippines.
If they are evacuated by land, they would go through Amman in Jordan or Irbil in northern Iraq. From Amman or Irbil, they would be flown to Doha in Qatar or to Dubai in the UAE, and then board flights to Manila.
The highest alert level was also imposed for Iran and Lebanon, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello said, adding that senior labor officials are being sent to different Middle Eastern countries — including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE — to brief Filipinos of the government’s action plan should tensions escalate.
The government is also prepared to bring home Philippine nationals from Iran and Libya.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippine military will send two battalions to help repatriate Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) from Iraq.
“The two battalions will not be there to engage in combat,” he said, “but to facilitate or help assist in the repatriation of the OFWs, especially in Iraq,” he told reporters in Camp Aguinaldo.
The two battalions will comprise the Philippine Army’s Special Operation Command marines and troops. A battalion is composed of between 350 and 500 officers and enlisted personnel.
Lorenzana added that if the need arises, the troops will also protect the Philippine nationals and those helping them in the evacuation process.
Asked whether they already have rules of engagement for these soldiers, the defense chief said that everything is still in the planning stage.
Lorenzana said that a brand-new Philippine Coast Guard offshore patrol vessel, the BRP Gabriela Silang, which is now in Malta, is expected to reach Jeddah in Saudi Arabia by Thursday.
The ship will be held there “for a while in case we will need the ship to shuttle OFWs from Iran or Iraq to Qatar and then from there we can maybe charter a plane or charter ships to bring them home,” he said, adding that other military assets that can be used to transport the OFWs are two landing docks — the BRP Tarlac and the BRP Davao Del Sur — with a combined capacity of 500 people.
Also to be deployed for the operation are two Air Force Lockheed C-130 cargo planes and the EADS CASA C-295 military transport aircraft.
If the need arises, the government will engage commercial planes and cruise ships as well.