Iraq calls for lifting of Philippine travel ban

Iraq's ambassador called Tuesday on the Philippines to lift its travel ban to Iraq, saying Filipinos can benefit by taking part in his war-damaged country's reconstruction.

Ambassador Wadee Al-Batti was reacting to a recent Philippine government reiteration of a travel and workers' deployment ban to high-risk countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Lebanon, Jordan and Somalia.

He said peace and order has greatly improved in Iraq since the Philippines first imposed the ban in 2004, but that no country can guarantee against terrorist attacks.

There are now some 50 embassies in Baghdad and not all of them are located in the Green Zone, an indication of the better security situation there, Al-Batti said. He was referring to the well-guarded area that houses the U.S. Embassy, Iraqi government offices and the parliament.

"I see the ban as a hindrance which limits our potential ... and doesn't allow the relationship between Iraq and the Philippines to go to a new level," Al-Batti told reporters.

He said Iraq is now an open country offering many opportunities, including a demand for more than 3 million houses, thousands of schools and more than 100 hospitals.

The Philippines banned its citizens from working in Iraq in July 2004 after insurgents abducted and threatened to behead Filipino truck driver Angelo dela Cruz. He was released after then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo agreed to withdraw the Philippines' small military contingent in Iraq — a decision strongly criticized by Washington and other coalition allies.

Some 4,000 Filipinos, mostly workers in U.S. bases, remain in Iraq after they were allowed last year by the Manila government to finish their contracts, Philippine special envoy to the Middle East Roy Cimatu told The Associated Press.

"The Philippines values opportunities for Filipino labor in overseas markets, and an interagency committee will take up the work opportunities opening up in Iraq," Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Eduardo Malaya said. Ensuring workers' security and welfare will be among the considerations taken, he added.