MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines (search) said Monday that it has completed the withdrawal of its peacekeeping contingent from Iraq, meeting a demand by Iraqi insurgents threatening to behead a Filipino hostage but defying opposition from Washington.
The last members of the 51-strong force made an "exit call" on the new Polish commander at their base in Hillah (search), south of Baghdad, then waved as they left in six cars.
Foreign Secretary Delia Albert said they would travel by road to Kuwait (search), a several-hour trip, then take a commercial flight home. They had been scheduled to leave Iraq on Aug. 20.
"Before the end of this day, all members of the Philippine humanitarian contingent will be out of Iraq," she said in a nationally televised statement.
Some of Manila's allies, including the United States and Australia, have sharply criticized the withdrawal decision, engineered to save the life of truck driver Angelo dela Cruz, saying it would only encourage more kidnappings. They argue it encourages terrorists and endangers other coalition members in Iraq.
There was no immediate word on the fate of dela Cruz. The insurgents who snatched him on July 7 near Fallujah, killing his Iraqi security guard, have said they would free the 46-year-old father of eight once the last Filipino troops had left.
Army Brig. Gen. Jovito S. Palparan Jr., commander of the Philippine contingent, returned home Monday ahead of his troops, saying he was happy to be back. Some of the peacekeepers left for Kuwait last week.
"The men I left there are OK," he said before meeting with Albert and military chief Narciso Abaya to report details of the withdrawal.
A prominent pressure group for overseas workers, Migrante, welcomed the withdrawal, but also urged President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to withdraw all support for the U.S.-led force, fearing that 4,000 Filipino contract workers in Iraq and more than 1.4 million others in the Middle East could be in danger.
"Additionally, we would like President Arroyo not to send troops again and categorically withdraw support to the U.S. coalition in Iraq because it is one reason that could make Filipinos targets of attacks," said Migrante's secretary-general, Maita Santiago.
Relatives of dela Cruz in the northern province of Pampanga were overjoyed and prayed after hearing of plans to complete the withdrawal Monday. They urged the kidnappers to free him.
"I'm happy that the troops are on their way back," said Feliciano de la Cruz Jr., the hostage's younger brother. "I hope my brother follows them home."
In the first sign of possible fallout from Arroyo's decision to withdraw troops from Iraq, a U.S. official told The Associated Press on Sunday that Washington was re-evaluating ties.
The official did not specifically say Washington could scale down military or economic assistance to Manila. Last week, U.S. officials said they remain committed to training and advising Filipino troops at Manila's request.
Troubled by communist insurgents and Muslim extremist terror threats, the Philippines has relied on Washington to provide training and weapons to its poorly armed military to battle al-Qaida-linked groups in the restive south.
Still reeling from a narrow victory in the May 10 presidential elections Arroyo has gambled cozy links with Washington to defuse a potentially explosive political situation had she refused to recall the troops from Iraq and de la Cruz — who has developed into a national icon — were beheaded, analysts said.