BY VICTOR REYES and JOCELYN MONTEMAYOR
ARMED Forces chief Lt. Gen. Felimon Santos Jr. yesterday said the military is on alert for sympathy attacks that may be waged by terrorist groups in the country amid tension between the US and Iran.
Santos also said Air Force aircraft and Navy ships have been alerted for the evacuation of thousands of Filipinos in Iran and Iraq, in case tension escalates.
“But as of now, there is no group affiliated with Iran … Our first action is to monitor groups, those affiliated with ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), those involved in terrorism,” said Santos.
President Duterte asked Congress to hold a special session to discuss the impact of the tension between the US and Iran, including the setting aside of funds that will be tapped in case the situation in the Middle East worsens.
“I do not have to belabor the point. There is an evolving crisis somewhere. We do not know what would be the end result of this crisis. It could lead to a protracted war. It could be wide-scale strife. But whatever it is, we Filipinos are really in great peril. We have so many Filipinos working mainly in the Middle East,” he said in Malacañang at the signing of the 2020 budget.
As of 2018, about 1.26 million Filipinos were working in the Middle East, with about 24.3 percent of them in Saudi Arabia, according to data from the Philippine Statistics Authority.
Tension between the US and Iran heightened on Friday as a US air strike in Baghdad killed Qassem Soleimani, Tehran’s most prominent military commander and architect of its growing influence in the Middle East.
On Saturday in Washington, US President Donald Trump threatened to hit 52 Iranian sites “very hard” if Iran attacks Americans or US assets.
On Sunday, Trump stood by his threat to go after Iranian cultural sites, warning of a “major retaliation” if Iran strikes back for the killing of one of its top military commanders.
Iraq’s parliament called for US and other foreign troops to leave as the backlash against the killing of Soleimani.
Trump threatened sanctions against Iraq and said that if US troops were required to leave, Iraq’s government would have to pay Washington for the cost of a “very extraordinarily expensive” air base there.
Trump and his advisers have been defending the US drone strike that killed Soleimani, whose death has escalated tensions in the region. Trump says Soleimani was planning attacks against Americans and said he would consider releasing intelligence reports that led him to direct the killing.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House will introduce and vote on a war powers resolution this week to limit Trump’s military actions regarding Iran.
The resolution is likely to win approval in the Democratic-led House, but prospects for passage are less certain in the Senate, which is controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans, many of whom have said they support the president’s action on Iran.
Duterte, at the budget signing, said he talked to the military on Sunday to discuss the developments in the Middle East and “told them that they have to start even the deployment itself.”
Duterte said he is nervous as Iran seems to be hell-bent on retaliation, “which I think will come.”
“It’s a matter of time. There is much hurt and even the loss of lives in the Arabic world.
And retaliation or the cry for blood is there … I do not have anything, nary a worry were it not for the fact there are a lot of Filipinos there. And it would take us a huge gargantuan effort just in case total breaks out of how to bring them back safely,” he added.
The President said Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III has assured him that the country as funds that it can use for repatriation.
He said he is not in favor of having the standby funds under his office.
“Let’s start with a standby fund … I’m very allergic to how the money is spent. I do not want to hold it. We might want to get some of the men with integrity and probity and they can be the disbursing body there,” he suggested.
Santos said President Duterte presided a meeting among security officials in Malacañang on Sunday afternoon to discuss the impact of the US drone strike that was in response to a series of Iranian-sponsored attacks against US personnel.
Santos also said the military has intensified intelligence monitoring on local terrorist groups “that might express sympathy to the Iranian cause.”
“As of now, we have not monitored anything but we will continue monitoring and of course, we are looking at possible targets of the Iranians on other countries and to our country, what are the probable actions … but as of now, we are always on the alert especially on our intelligence gathering,” he said.
Santos said the security of the US embassy and Americans in the Philippines is also a concern of the Armed Forces “so that is included in our intelligence monitoring.”
PNP officer-in-charge Lt. Gen. Archie Gamboa said the police force is “profiling possible threats,” noting that groups may “take advantage (of the situation) or sympathize.”
The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration said it is preparing to impose a deployment ban once the Department of Foreign Affairs raises the crisis alert level in Iraq and Iran.
The Philippine Embassy in Israel advised Filipinos to refrain from going to the Golan Heights and areas near the borders of Gaza and Lebanon.
In an advisory, the embassy particularly singled out the snow resort in Mt. Hermon in the Golan Heights which borders Syria as a no-go zone.
Mt. Hermon was the target of a rocket attack fired from Syria in January last year.
The advisory also covered Bethlehem, Jericho, and Hebron in the West Bank and the Temple Mount, Damascus Gate, Herod’s Gate, Al Wad Road and Musrara Road in Jerusalem as well as Silwan, At-Tur, Mt, of Olives, Ras Al-Mud and Issawiyah in East Jerusalem.
There are about 29,000 Filipinos living and working in Israel.
Trump has said the drone strike was conducted to avoid war with Tehran and warned against further escalation, but he has employed tough rhetoric in public, tweeting that the US had targeted 52 Iranian sites, some “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” if Iran struck any American or American assets in retaliation.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denied on Sunday that Trump said he would target Iranian cultural sites, but the president contradicted him when asked about the issue on Sunday night.
“They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way,” he said.
Targeting cultural sites with military action is considered a war crime under international law, including a UN Security Council resolution supported by the Trump administration in 2017 and the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property.
The president also issued a threat to Baghdad after the Iraqi parliament’s call for US and other foreign troops to leave the country in a backlash against the killing of Soleimani.
“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build, long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” Trump told reporters.
Trump said that if Iraq asked US forces to leave and it was not done on a friendly basis, “we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.” – With Ashzel Hachero, Gerard Naval and Reuters