July 20, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq - A Filipino truck driver held hostage in Iraq for nearly two weeks was freed Tuesday, a day after his nation withdrew its final peacekeepers from Iraq - a move that met the kidnappers' demands but angered U.S. and Iraqi officials.
Also, a U.S. Marine was killed in action in Anbar Province, a Sunni-dominated area west of Baghdad, while conducting "security and stability operations" in the province, the military said. As of Tuesday, 891 U.S. service members have died since military operations in Iraq began in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
The Islamic militant group blamed for deadly attacks on foreign and local interests in Iraq threatened Japan that car bombs would strike its troops if they were not withdrawn. Tokyo has dispatched about 500 soldiers to southern Iraq to rebuild schools, provide medical supplies and supply clean water.
The Philippines government and the family of Angelo dela Cruz were overjoyed at his release. His wife, Arsenia, burst into tears upon hearing the news in neighboring Jordan. Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo grinned during a nationally televised address in the Philippines.
"We must rejoice at the good news, but our happiness must be tempered by the awareness that we live in dangerous times, and that we must work to create a more peaceful world," Arroyo said.
The withdrawal by the Philippines has been strongly criticized by Iraqi and U.S. officials. Many, including Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, fear it will embolden terror groups to take more foreign civilians hostage to try to drive a wedge between the countries in the coalition.
Several previous hostage crises did not push other countries - including Japan - to withdraw troops.
"All of us know that if you appease terrorism you will sooner or later fall victim to it or be taken over by it," Abizaid said Tuesday in the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain.
An online statement signed by the Khalid bin al-Waleed Brigade, the military wing of the Tawhid and Jihad group, threatened Japanese troops in Iraq.
"To the government of Japan: do what the Philippines has done. By God, nobody will protect you and we are not going to tolerate anybody," the statement said.
"Lines of cars laden with explosives are awaiting you; we will not stop, God willing," said the statement on an Islamic forum known for carrying statements by extremist groups.
Abizaid also accused Syria and Iran of tolerating cross-border infiltration and meddling by groups bent on further destabilizing Iraq.
He also said he believes there are elements in Iran now interfering in southern Iraq.
"I do know there are groups within Iran that want to play a destabilizing role in Iraq and I think that would be most unhelpful for Iran and most unhelpful for Iraq," he said.
The ordeal of dela Cruz, a father of eight, had captivated the Philippines, since he was first shown on video wearing a bright orange garment similar to that worn by other foreign hostages who were killed by kidnappers.
With more than 7 million Filipinos working overseas, 1.4 million of them in the Middle East, many in the Philippines felt a personal connection to dela Cruz.
"Angelo has become a Filipino `everyman,' a symbol of the hardworking Filipino seeking hope and opportunity," Arroyo said in her national address.
The news of dela Cruz's release came amid an ongoing wave of deadly violence across Iraq, much of it targeting police and other government officials, whom insurgents view as collaborators.
In the southern city of Basra, gunmen killed Hazim al-Aynachi, an Iraqi council member running for governor, along with his bodyguard and driver as they were pulling out of his driveway to head to work Tuesday, said council head Abdul Bari Faiyek.
Faiyek blamed the killing on opposition to the gubernatorial elections that were scheduled for Tuesday, but were delayed in response to the shooting.
"Many threats have been directed to the eight council members nominated to the post," Faiyek said, adding that another councilman escaped an assassination attempt Monday.
Insurgents have also taken foreigners in Iraq hostage to try to push out coalition forces and private companies helping rebuild Iraq.
The militants holding dela Cruz, who first appeared in a videotape July 7 surrounded by masked, armed gunmen, demanded the Philippines pull out its 51-member force here or they would kill him.
The government initially made a series of ambiguous statements, but finally agreed. On Monday the last Philippine troops, who had been scheduled to leave Aug. 20, drove out of the country and into Kuwait.
About 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, dela Cruz was dropped on the steps of the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Baghdad, said UAE officials, who denied there was any coordination between them and the kidnappers.
About three hours later, dela Cruz was driven in a silver Mercedes to the Philippines Embassy, where jubilant embassy staff members embraced him.
At news of his release, dela Cruz's family burst into celebration.
"I thank all who offered prayers for our family," Arsenia dela Cruz said from Jordan, where she had been awaiting word of her husband's fate.
The Philippines government released a videotape showing Arroyo talking on the telephone with dela Cruz.
Dela Cruz was to be flown to Abu Dhabi on Wednesday for a medical checkup before heading home.
In dela Cruz's home village of Buenavista, in the northern Philippines, relatives and friends raised their arms in jubilation after Arroyo announced he was safe. Others wept tears of joy and shouted his name.
Wealthy Filipinos have taken pity on his family. A popular computer school granted his children full scholarships from grade school to college and assured them of jobs after graduation. A real estate company donated a house, to be built in the next few days, and a small parcel of land near his two-room shack.
Arroyo said concern for the millions of Filipino contract workers around the world influenced her decision.
"My government has a deep national interest in their well being wherever they live and work," Arroyo said. "I made a decision to bring our troops home a few days early in order to spare the life of Angelo. I do not regret that decision."
While she said she was happy that Angelo dela Cruz is coming home, she warned that other "innocents" will not be so lucky if terrorists continue to mount attacks and kidnappings.
In another kidnapping case, an Egyptian truck driver held hostage was freed Monday and taken to his country's embassy. Alsayeid Mohammed Alsayeid Algarabawi was abducted from a truck he had driven from Saudi Arabia into Iraq.
Algarabawi's captors, who called themselves the Iraqi Legitimate Resistance, never threatened to harm him but made a series of demands to his Saudi company, including asking for $1 million ransom and insisting it stop doing business in Iraq.
The Al-Jarie Transport company refused to pay the ransom but agreed to end its business in Iraq, said Faisal al-Naheet, a subcontractor speaking on behalf of the firm.
Militants have used near-constant car bombs, sabotage, assassinations and kidnappings as weapons in their 15-month-old insurgency.
On Monday, a fuel tanker rigged as a massive bomb exploded at a Baghdad police station, killing nine people, wounding 60, and leveling a huge section of an industrial neighborhood.
The suicide bombing was the fourth in a string of deadly attacks on police and government facilities in the last five days. Since the new government took power June 28, at least 75 people have been killed in militant attacks.