Wed, Jul 21, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Arroyo risks paying high diplomatic price for hostage's life

By Stuart Grudgings  /  REUTERS , Manila

By withdrawing from Iraq, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has kissed goodbye any reputation she had as Asia's "iron lady," but her strong bond with Washington seems unlikely to unravel as a result.

Despite harsh criticism from the US and talk of a rift in relations, analysts said Washington needs the Philippine government to keep up the pressure on Muslim militants in the country's lawless south, some of them linked to al-Qaeda.

Still, the price she is willing to pay to win the release of truck driver Angelo de la Cruz may rise if, as some predict, the pull-out undermines her credibility in fighting insurgents in Manila's own back-yard or prompts Washington to cut vital aid.

Neither does the withdrawal inspire confidence that the US-trained economist will use her second term won in May 10 elections to take the tough, unpopular decisions needed to wean the country off debt dependency and reform its feeble economy.

"I think everyone perceives her now as weak, vacillating and prone to cave in, which might be a little unfair given the circumstances," said Tom Green, executive director of the Pacific Strategies and Assessments (PSA) consultancy in Manila.

"Nevertheless, she's got a lot of ground to make up now," he said.

Arroyo, who styled herself as Asia's answer to Britain's "iron lady" -- former prime minister Margaret Thatcher -- after winning the presidency in 2001, has remained virtually silent during the crisis, leaving the talking to the foreign ministry.

The comparison with Thatcher already looked shaky after the devoutly Catholic Arroyo flip-flopped on whether the Philippines should have the death penalty and over her decision, later reversed, not to run for a second term as president.

But her ratings seem unlikely to be dented by the end of a deployment that was not particularly popular despite the country's long-standing ties with the US.

Securing de la Cruz's release should mean Arroyo will improve her chances of a smooth start to a new six-year term, which followed a bitter election overshadowed by opposition allegations of cheating.

"A decision to keep the Philippine contingent in Iraq is something the opposition would have loved," said Felipe Miranda, head of the Pulse Asia polling firm, whose surveys have shown most Filipinos opposed the Iraq deployment.

"It would have allowed them to mount a terrific campaign which could even unseat her. So I think President Arroyo from a purely political calculation point of view had no choice," he said.

Many politicians, both friends and rivals, have rallied around her in the face of criticism from Washington and others who have said Manila is now in the diplomatic dog house.

MUTUAL NEEDS

Despite US disappointment, analysts said it would not be in Washington's interest to punish Manila by cutting its hefty military aid to the country or reducing other forms of support.

"I expect [Washington] DC will get over this thing fairly quickly because the fact is they still need a lot of cooperation from the Philippines in the war on terrorism," Green said.

The US is giving more than $100 million in aid over five years to the Philippine military, whose lack of training and equipment has hampered attempts to find Muslim militants suspected of being sheltered by the home-grown Moro Islamic Liberation Front insurgency in southern Mindanao.

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