Philippines braces for broader Mideast conflict, orders more evacuations

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines is bracing for a broader conflict in the Middle East, ordering the evacuation of tens of thousands more of its citizens from the region after Iran fired rockets at U.S.-led forces in Iraq.

The order to leave Iran and Lebanon followed a previously announced mandatory evacuation of citizens from Iraq, Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello said on Wednesday.

It would be a “nightmare” if the conflict between Iran and the Philippines’ close ally, the United States, turned into a full-blown war, Bello said, but the government was readying measures to assure jobs for those who returned.

“We appeal to them to go home,” he added. “When conditions get better, they can return if they want to.”

More than 2 million Philippine citizens live and work in the Middle East, sending home billions of dollars in annual remittances that could be dented by a full-scale conflict.

More than 30,000 of these are in Lebanon, and more than 1,000 in Iran, excluding undocumented laborers, Bello said.

The foreign ministry said more than half of the 1,600 Filipinos working in Iraq, were in the Kurdistan region and the rest at U.S. and other foreign facilities in Baghdad and in commercial establishments in Erbil.

A Philippine patrol vessel, newly acquired from France and en route to the Philippines, was ordered to sail to Oman and Dubai to assist citizens who may need to be extricated, the coast guard said in a statement.

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, a retired general named by President Rodrigo Duterte as special envoy to the Middle East, will leave for Qatar on Thursday before heading to Baghdad to oversee the evacuation effort.

Cimatu, who oversaw a similar move during the Iraq war, said the current conflict presented more challenges as it was not confined only to Baghdad.

“It is a guessing game which would be the next target,” Cimatu told reporters.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said there are plans to send two battalions of troops and marines to Iraq to assist the evacuation.

Philippine workers in the Middle East sent home $5.4 billion in remittances in the period from January to October last year, making up a fifth of total flows in that time, making the region a major source of foreign exchange inflows that help drive growth in a consumption-led economy.

Iran’s missile attack in the early hours of Wednesday came hours after the funeral of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of its elite Quds Force killed in a U.S. drone strike last week.

On Twitter, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said no Philippine citizen was hurt in the attack, based on an initial report from the United States.

Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez