CAMP VICTORY, Iraq -- The Philippines yesterday barred its contract workers -- the backbone of the US military's support staff in Iraq -- from coming here after militants released a videotape threatening to kill a Filipino hostage.
The threat left Filipino workers praying for their countryman and worried about their own safety.
On the video, aired Wednesday by the Al-Jazeera television network, three armed and masked men stood behind the seated hostage, threatening to kill him if the Philippines doesn't pull its troops out within three days.
Only 51 Philippines soldiers and police are part of the nearly 160,000-strong multinational force; their deployment is scheduled to end this month and Manila has been considering whether to extend their tour of duty.
It is the 4,100 Filipino contractors working on US military bases who have become so crucial to day-to-day functioning, providing food services, janitorial work, and building maintenance.
The US military, which has diverted as many soldiers to combat duty as possible, would be hard-pressed to operate in Iraq without the extra manpower the Filipinos provide.
"We are very worried. We're taken in and out by road from Baghdad to Jordan," one worker said, asking that his name not be used for fear of losing his job. "We've asked to be taken out by air, but the company still takes us out by road."
He said there were no plans for the workers to be evacuated, and they were not afraid to be on the base. They were mainly concerned about finding a safe way out of the country when their six-month contracts expire.
The Philippine charge d'affaires in Baghdad, Ricardo Endaya, said the hostage was abducted near Fallujah, west of Baghdad, on the main highway used by the workers. ABS-CBN TV, quoting the Philippine ambassador in Qatar, identified him as Angelo dela Cruz, a truck driver who crossed into Iraq from Saudi Arabia.
There are frequent attacks on convoys traveling that highway and kidnappings are common.
In response to the kidnapping, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered Philippine contract workers not to travel to Iraq, but she did not refer to the kidnappers' demands to withdraw Filipino troops.
A Philippine Cabinet committee held an emergency meeting to address the hostage crisis as a lobby group for 7 million Philippine workers overseas urged Arroyo to meet the kidnappers' demands.
The Philippines special envoy to the Mideast, Roy Cimatu, who was flying to Iraq yesterday to try to negotiate the hostage's release, noted the Filipino troops are not involved in combat.
Earlier this year, three Filipino workers were killed in attacks by Iraqi insurgents.
Most of the Filipino workers are employed by Pentagon contractor KBR Inc. or one of the company's subcontractors. The US military referred all inquiries to the company.