MANILA — The repatriation of Filipinos from Iraq will continue even as the United States and Iran have called it even following missile strikes there, a member of President Rodrigo Duterte's Cabinet overseeing the evacuation said Thursday.
Iran earlier said it had concluded its "proportionate" retaliation against the US after launching 22 ballistic missiles against Iraqi bases that hosted American and foreign troops on Wednesday. The attack was a calibrated response to the killing of a top Iranian general in a US air strike on Jan. 3.
"This is the time to get out while there are no military operations," Philippine Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu told reporters before leaving for Qatar, from where he would oversee evacuation efforts.
"Sometimes there are some instances of a very surprise missile attack and they have the option to press the trigger and while we just anticipate things. We have to be ready in case there are incidents," added Cimatu, a former military chief and special envoy to the Middle East who in 2004 secured the release of a Filipino hostage in Iraq.
Iraq hosts some 1,600 Filipinos. The Philippine Embassy ordered their evacuation and raised the highest crisis alert level there on Wednesday.
US President Donald Trump on Thursday said Iran "appears to be standing down" and even suggested Tehran and Washington could work towards a nuclear deal while cooperating against jihadists.
Fresh missile attacks, however, will automatically prompt the closure of Iraq's main airport in Baghdad. In this scenario, Filipinos will be evacuated by bus to neighboring Erbil, capital of Iraq's Kurdistan region, or Amman, Jordan, said Cimatu.
Filipinos can only stay for 3 days in transit points before they have to fly elsewhere, arrangements for which were made with Philippine airline companies, said Cimatu.
Analysts predict violent instability will keep blighting Iraq.
Washington and Tehran "are so mobilized in Iraq, which has become such symbolic terrain for hitting out at the other," said Erica Gaston of the New America Foundation.
US troops and even the embassy in Baghdad had been hit by more than a dozen rocket attacks in recent months, which have killed one Iraqi soldier and an American contractor.
The attacks went unclaimed but the US blamed hardline elements of the Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi military network incorporated into the state but linked to Tehran.
The strike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani outside Baghdad international airport on Friday also killed his top Iraqi aide and Hashed deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Bolstered by Iran's attack, the Hashed said Wednesday it would take its own steps to avenge Muhandis's death.
"That is a promise," vowed leading member Qais al-Khazali.
Hours later, two rockets slammed into the Iraqi capital's Green Zone, the high-security enclave where the US embassy, other foreign missions and some foreign troops are based.
-- With reports from Agence France-Presse; RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News