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Filipino Workers Barred From Iraq

Rescue workers and people search for possible survivors in the debris of a destroyed house in Okcular village in the eastern province of Elazig, Turkey, Monday, March 8, 2010, hours after a strong earthquake, with a preliminary magnitude of 6, hit eastern Turkey eaarly Monday, killing at least 57 people and knocking down houses in at least six small villages, the government said. The quake affected villages near the town of Kovancilar, toppling stone or mud-brick homes and minarets of mosques, officials and media reports said. The worst-hit area was the village of Okcular where some 17 people were reported killed and homes crumbled into piles of dirt.(AP Photo )
AP Photo
The Philippines on Thursday barred its contract workers - the backbone of the U.S. military's support staff in Iraq - from coming here after militants released a videotape threatening to kill a Filipino hostage.

The threat left Filipino workers praying for their countryman and worried about their own safety.

On the video, aired Wednesday by the Al-Jazeera television network, three armed and masked men stood behind the seated hostage, threatening to kill him if the Philippines doesn't pull its troops out within three days.

Only 51 Philippines soldiers and police are part of the nearly 160,000-strong multinational force; their deployment is scheduled to end later this month and Manila has been considering whether to extend their tour of duty.

It is the 4,100 Filipino contractors working on U.S. military bases who have become so crucial to day-to-day functioning, providing food services, janitorial work and building maintenance.

The U.S. military, which has diverted as many soldiers to combat duty as possible, would be hard pressed to operate in Iraq without the extra manpower the Filipinos provide.

"We are very worried. We're taken in and out by road from Baghdad to Jordan," one worker said, asking that his name not be used for fear of losing his job. "We've asked to be taken out by air, but the company still takes us out by road."

He said there were no plans for the workers to be evacuated, and they were not afraid to be on the base. They were mainly concerned about finding a safe way out of the country when their six-month contracts expire.

The Philippine charge d'affaires in Baghdad, Ricardo Endaya, said the hostage was abducted near the restive city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, on the main highway used by the workers. ABS-CBN TV, quoting the Philippine ambassador in Qatar, identified him as Angelo dela Cruz, a truck driver who crossed into Iraq from Saudi Arabia.

There are frequent attacks on convoys traveling that highway and kidnappings are common.

In response to the kidnapping, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered Philippine contract workers not to travel to Iraq, but she did not refer to the kidnappers' demands to withdraw Filipino troops.

A Philippine Cabinet committee held an emergency meeting to address the hostage crisis as a lobby group for 7 million Philippine workers overseas urged Arroyo to meet the kidnappers' demands.

The Philippines special envoy to the Mideast, Roy Cimatu, who was flying to Iraq on Thursday to try to negotiate the hostage's release, noted the Filipino troops are not involved in combat.

"As a member of a body of nations, we sent our forces there to do a humanitarian job, no more, no less," Cimatu told DZMM radio.

Earlier this year, three Filipino workers were killed in attacks by Iraqi insurgents.

Most of the Filipino workers are employed by Pentagon contractor KBR Inc., or one the company's subcontractors. The U.S. military referred all inquiries to the company.

Megan Mason, a spokeswoman for KBR in Baghdad, said the company was unsure what the government decision meant for workers already in Baghdad.

"KBR is waiting to hear from our Filipino subcontractors," she said. "It's not a question of security, but the (Filipino) government making a decision about their workers."

The Philippines is one of the biggest supporters of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, in large part because it faces a Muslim extremist threat of its own. In addition to sending a small peacekeeping contingent to Iraq, the Philippines has invited U.S. troops to train Filipino soldiers in counterterrorism.

While most Filipino workers at Camp Victory declined requests for interviews, many seemed visibly shaken.

"We are praying for him," one woman said.

By Chris Tomlinson
By Chris Tomlinson