By Ellson Quismorio
If Special Envoy to the Middle East Roy Cimatu is to be believed, then the assistance that American servicemen could offer to Filipinos based in Iraq amid the persisting tension between Iran and the United States (U.S.) isn’t that extensive.
OFW Family party-List Rep. Bobby Pacquiao asked Cimatu in a recent hearing of the House committee on overseas workers affairs (OWA) regarding the dynamics of such assistance from the U.S. in the light of the Palace-ordered abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between Manila and Washington.
“Makakatulong po ba sa atin ‘yung U.S. sa paglikas ng mga Pilipino sa Iraq at Iran kung sakaling magkagulo roon? If so, anong magiging epekto nito kung tuluyan nang ipatigil ng Pangulo ang VFA?” asked Pacquiao, a vice-chairman of the panel.
(Will the U.S. be able to help with the extrication of Filipinos in Iraq and Iran in case conflict erupts there? If so, how would this be affected should the President push through with the termination of the VFA?)
“Sa tingin ko po unahin muna nila sarili nila (I think they will save themselves first),” a deadpan Cimatu said, referring to the U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
“Kasi talaga naman na (In truth) they are there inside bases. Kapag ang target po ay ang kanilang base, kahit walang Pilipino doon, talagang sila ang [target] (If their bases are the target, even if there are no Filipinos there, they really are the target),” explained the retired general and current Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) secretary.
But in addressing the meat of Pacquiao’s query, Cimatu said Filipinos could “hitch a ride” with the Americans if they’re also within camp and thus in the line of fire.
“Ang maaari sigurong makatulong lang ay makisakay tayo sa kanila, lumalabas via helicopter paglabas, kung nandoon tayo sa loob ng kampo nila. Eh pero, kaso po, nagtatrabaho sila sa mga bahay ng Iraqi, ‘yung mga Filipinos doon (Maybe they could help us by letting us ride with them in their helicopters on the way out, if we are there inside their bases. But the Filipinos there are working inside the homes of Iraqis),” he said.
Philippine authorities plucked last month 36 Filipinos from Iraq, which sits right next to Iran. Their respective capital cities, Baghdad and Tehran, are just 875 kilometers away from each other.
On Jan. 9, Iran fired a barrage of missiles at two military bases in Iraq holding U.S. troops as retaliation for the killing of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani the previous week in an American drone attack.
OWA panel chairman, Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) party-List Rep. Democrito Mendoza asked the special envoy if Alert Level 4 was still being enforced in Iraq, to which the latter answered in the affirmative. “Tension is still high…There’s no such thing as safe area there,” Cimatu said.
He said while mandatory repatriation by the Philippine government is still in effect, authorities on the ground need to lure out Filipinos from their workplaces so they may be sent back home.
“The situation really there as of now is there are some demonstrations, there are problems [on] the streets, and it’s really difficult for our workers to go out of their houses,” Cimatu said, adding that it’s “hard to predict” what would happen next in the light of the U.S.-Iran conflict.
Asked about the total number of overseas Filipino workers (OFW) in Iraq, Cimatu couldn’t give an exact number to the committee since they are undocumented. “Walang documented doon (There are no documented OFWs there).”
It is estimated that there are over 1,500 Filipino workers in Iraq.