Arroyo defends Iraq troop pullout before Congress

By Lira Dalangin-Fernandez with Agence France-Presse

(UPDATE) PRESIDENT Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo went before Congress Monday to defend her decision to withdraw troops from Iraq to save the life of a Filipino truck driver threatened with beheading by Islamic militants.

Arroyo said that her foreign policy had always been to "protect the vital interests of the nation, including our eight million overseas Filipinos."

"And I cannot apologize for being a protector of my people," Arroyo said in her first State of the Nation Address before Congress since assuming a fresh six-year term last month.

The pullout of the tiny Filipino contingent had angered the United States and Australia, which on Sunday accused Manila of helping to embolden terrorists.

But Arroyo said letting Iraqi militants behead hostage Angelo de la Cruz would have been a "pointless provocation that would have placed the 1.5 million Filipino workers in the Middle East at risk by making them part of the war. Wars are for combatants," she said.

"In short, let me tell all Filipinos everywhere from this place and right now, that you have a government, indeed you have a country, that cares," she said.

"Your life is held more dearly than any international acclaim," she added.

Arroyo said the country had "a rich past of war experience" and that it could not be accused of cowardice because of its decision to withdraw the contingent from Iraq.

"When I opted to save De la Cruz, I was reflecting whether one life should be sacrificed for no pressing reason or saved by accelerating an ongoing pullout," the President said.

"I did not sacrifice policy to save a human life. I applied policy for that purpose. The Philippines has no policy that demands sacrifice of human lives," she added.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Sunday that Manila's move had emboldened an Islamic militant group which claims links to the Al-Qaeda to issue threats of bombings in Australia unless it too withdraws its troops.

The group reportedly made the threats in an online message.

Shortly after De la Cruz was freed, Islamic militants in Iraq kidnapped three Kenyans, three Indians, and an Egyptian -- all of them also truck drivers.

Filipino activists and some politicians have also accused Arroyo of caving in to the militants and in the process putting the country's interests abroad at greater risk. (Originally posted at 6:01 PM)


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