Filipinos in Iraq are being urged by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to come home as the situation in that country continued to deteriorate on Saturday.
The DFA raised the crisis alert for all areas in Iraq to Alert Level 3 except for the Iraqi Kurdistan region which remains under Alert Level 1. Under alert level 3, voluntary repatriation is recommended. Filipinos in areas under alert level 1 were told to be vigilant.
The DFA is sending a rapid response team to Iraq to assist Filipinos who want to be repatriated.
The DFA did not give the number of Filipinos in Iraq, but in 2012 the estimate was 10,000, mostly construction workers and professionals.
Just last year the Philippine government lifted its ban on the deployment of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to Iraq.
A total ban, in force after the Gulf War in 2003 that brought down Saddam Hussein, was reimposed in February 2012 after a new wave of violence in Iraq.
Things took a bizare twist on Saturday when Shiite Iran offered to work with longtime foe the United States if it takes the lead in helping push back Sunni Arab militants who have seized a swathe of northern Iraq.
The offer came as Iraqi commanders said the army was preparing a fightback north of Baghdad, bolstered by thousands of Shiite volunteers who have signed up in response to a call to arms by top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited the besieged shrine city of Samarra north of the capital on Friday to rally troops and pray at the Al-Askari mausoleum, a revered Shiite shrine whose 2006 bombing by al-Qaeda sparked sectarian conflict that killed tens of thousands.
President Barack Obama said he was “looking at all the options” to halt the offensive that has brought jihadist-led militants within 50 miles of Baghdad city limits but ruled out any return of US combat troops.
“We will not be sending US troops back into combat in Iraq, but I have asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraqi security forces,” he said.
Obama has been under mounting fire from his Republican opponents over the swift collapse of the Iraqi security forces, which Washington spent billions of dollars training and equipping before pulling out its own troops in 2011.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who since his election last June has overseen a rapprochement with a superpower it long derided as the “Great Satan,” said his government was prepared to consider offering help.
“If we see that the United States takes action against terrorist groups in Iraq, then one can think about it,” Rouhani told a press conference.
The Iraqi cabinet has granted the Shiite premier “unlimited powers” to reverse the lightning offensive, which has seen the militants sweep down towards Baghdad after overrunning second city Mosul on Tuesday.
A colonel from the military command responsible for Samarra, a city 110 kilometers north of the capital, said reinforcements from the federal police and army arrived on Friday.
The officer said the reinforcements were for a drive against areas north of the city, including Dur and Tikrit, that militants seized in their drive south earlier this week.
Security forces were awaiting orders to begin, the colonel said.
On Friday, police and residents expelled militants from the Dhuluiyah area, just 90 kilometers north of Baghdad, where they had set up checkpoints, witnesses said.
“Residents are now firing into the air” in celebration, witness Abu Abdullah told Agence France-Presse.
Security forces have generally performed poorly, with some abandoning their vehicles and positions and discarding their uniforms.
But they have been bolstered by a flood of volunteers since Sistani urged Iraqis on Friday to join up to defend the country.
Obama said that while the United States was willing to help out, Iraq needed to take steps to heal the deep divide between the Shiite-led government and the Sunni Arab minority, whose resentment has been exploited by the jihadists.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby declined to say what kind of response was being prepared.
He confirmed that the US aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush and its strike group were in the region and ready to act. The US navy said the carrier group was in the Arabian Sea.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf dismissed criticism from Republican lawmakers that a residual US force would have stopped the Iraqi army from collapsing.
“When we left Iraq, after years of sacrifice and American taxpayer money, and certainly our troops felt that sacrifice more than anyone, the Iraqis had an opportunity,” Harf told reporters.
Instead, Iraqi leaders “created a climate where there were vulnerabilities when it came to the cohesion of the Iraqi army,” Harf said.