The Philippines on Wednesday ordered the mandatory evacuation of thousands of Filipinos from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon after Iranian forces fired missiles at U.S. troops in Iraqi territory to retaliate for an airstrike that killed a top general last week.
Two Philippine battalions, or about 800 soldiers, were also tapped for deployment to the Middle East to help bring Filipinos home amid sharply escalated tensions between Tehran and Washington, officials in Manila said.
Indonesia’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, called on its nationals in Iraq and Iran to remain vigilant and get in touch with Jakarta’s embassies and consulates there. Indonesian Vice President Ma’ruf Amin expressed hope that war would not break out between the U.S. and Iran, saying that Jakarta wanted to help lead international efforts to defuse the tensions in the Middle East.
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s foreign ministry said it was closely monitoring the situation and preparing for the possibility of evacuating some 200 Malaysians from Iraq and Iran.
In expressing “deep concern over the events in Iraq and its implications on peace and security in the region,” the Philippine foreign office said it had raised the alert level across that country to level 4 – signaling a mandatory evacuation – “in view of the escalating events in Iraq.”
“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 said in a statement.
Roy Cimatu, the Philippine special envoy to the Middle East, was scheduled to go to the region to oversee the mass evacuation, the department said, adding that “rapid response teams” would also be deployed to help in the effort.
The Philippine Department of Labor and Employment later said Filipinos working in Iran and Lebanon were also ordered to leave those countries, and Manila was indefinitely banning its overseas workers from traveling there while U.S.-Iranian hostilities continued to unfold, according to reports.
On Wednesday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the two army battalions would be tasked with helping repatriate Filipinos from the Middle East, but would not be involved in combat operations should war break out between Iran and the United States.
The Philippines is a long-time military ally of the U.S. Both countries are bound by a nearly 70-year-old mutual defense treaty, which calls on each side to help the other in times of war.
“The two battalions will not be there to engage in combat, but to facilitate or help assist in the repatriation of the OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) especially in Iraq,” Lorenzana said.
He said the government was also looking into using cruise ships or charter commercial planes to evacuate the Filipinos.
The Philippine Coast Guard said it was re-routing a patrol boat it had acquired from France, and had ordered the vessel to head to the Middle East to help in the repatriation effort. The boat will pick up Filipinos and bring them to ports, from where they could be flown back to Manila, the coast guard said.
Lt. Gen. Felimon Santos Jr., the new Philippine military chief, said the armed forces were waiting for diplomatic clearance before they could deploy soldiers and equipment to the Middle East.
“We have some recommended places, countries for stage points in case (the situation) worsens,” Santos told reporters.
The mission would be a humanitarian one “dedicated to take from harm’s way our fellow Filipinos and bring them to safety,” said Marine Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, the military’s spokesman.
“Much as we pray that the situation improves and notwithstanding the challenges we face, we are prepared to embark on that mission not only because it’s our mandate or it was the Commander-in-Chief’s directive, but more so because of care and compassion for our countrymen,” he added.
An estimated 2.17 million documented Filipinos are working across the Middle East, many of them employed as laborers or maids.
The Philippines has traditionally relied on remittances by its army of expatriate workers to power the economy. From January to October 2019, expat workers sent home more than U.S. $5 billion in remittances, according to figures from the Philippines Statistics Authority.
Indonesia: ‘We want peace’
The Philippines issued the mandatory evacuation order after Iran said it had fired missiles at two bases in Iraq that house hundreds of American troops, in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and several other people near Baghdad’s international airport on Jan. 3. No casualties were reported in Wednesday's strike.
American officials had justified targeting Soleimani for death, alleging Iran was plotting attacks on Americans and U.S. interests, and that as the top commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, he had the blood of hundreds of U.S. servicemen on his hands. Washington has branded both the Quds Force and the corps as foreign terrorist organizations.
In the days leading up to the general’s assassination, tensions were already escalating between the U.S. and Iran, beginning with Washington accusing Iran-allied militiamen of killing an American contractor in Iraq. That was followed by deadly U.S. airstrikes targeting pro-Iranian fighters in Syria and Iraq, according to reports. The strikes led to violent anti-American demonstrations outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad last week.
In the wake of Wednesday’s Iranian missile firings, the vice president of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation, said his government would join international efforts aimed at averting another a new war in the Middle East.
“We (Indonesia) want peace. Hence, what we have to do is to find a peaceful solution so the war will not happen,” Ma’ruf Amin said, according to the Antara state news agency. “If the war happens, it will have a very detrimental impact on the world.”
“Indonesia, along with peace-loving nations,” including Middle Eastern members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), “and through the U.N. will make every effort to prevent the war from happening,” he added.
Elsewhere, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told a news conference that officials from his ministry had met with other government agencies, including the Ministry of Defense, National Security Council and the Royal Malaysia Police, to assess the situation in the Middle East and discuss potential moves to evacuate 162 Malaysian citizens from Iraq and 58 of its nationals from Iran.
“Our priority is the safety of our citizens. I would like to advise those who are there to communicate with the nearest embassies as often as they can and to be cautious,” the foreign minister said.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, Philippines, Arief Rahmat in Kuala Lumpur, and BenarNews staff in Washington contributed this report.