Return to Baghdad

IRAQ-2011-4When our delegation that Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario dispatched to assess the security situation in Iraq arrived at the Philippine Embassy in Baghdad on Monday, 19 September 2011, we were greeted by a building that seemed to have been frozen in time.

The two-story duplex at No. 22, Zukak, Mahalat 916 in Baghdad’s Al Jadriyah District could easily be mistaken for a residential building. The diplomatic character of the structure was only given away by the seal of the Republic of the Philippines atop the second floor balcony and the team of Iraqi security officers stationed outside.

The Embassy was well-fortified. It was protected by 10-foot high concrete barriers that were erected along the sidewalk outside its walls. There were hesco gabions–wire mesh cages filled with sandbags–placed near the main entrance to the chancery while the doors and windows were all covered with steel plates.

All these were intended to protect the Embassy against car bombs, small arms fire, grenades, and mortars that could be directed against it. After all, this was Iraq–what once was the cradle of civilization and now one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

At the Embassy’s receiving area, a framed portrait of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo welcomed our delegation. Memoranda and other documents signed by Foreign Affairs Secretary Delia Domingo Albert remain tacked to the bulletin board. There were also notes verbale from the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They were dated 2004.

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Almost everything was covered with dust–from the old office furniture and computers to the AK-47s and body armor and helmets that were purchased to help Embassy personnel repel an insurgent attack that never came.

“It’s just like how we left it six years ago,” Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Rafael Seguis, told the rest of the delegation that also included Executive Director Enrico Fos of the Office of Migrant Workers Affairs and Labor Attaché Angel Borja of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office in Damascus.

“The Embassy seems to have been suspended in time,” said Undersecretary Seguis who had previosly served as deputy head of mission in what we in the Foreign Service referred to as Baghdad PE.

The Embassy served as the base of operations for Undersecretary Seguis and other Filipino diplomats at the height of the government’s successful efforts to secure the release of kidnapped overseas workers Angelito dela Cruz and Roberto Tangoroy in 2004 and 2005.

The Embassy also served as the base of operations for Undersecretary Seguis and other Filipino diplomats at the height of the government’s successful efforts to secure the release of kidnapped overseas workers Angelito dela Cruz in 2004 and Roberto Tangoroy a year later.

The Embassy was opened by Ambassador Ernesto Llamas in 1980 after Manila established diplomatic relations with Baghdad to assist Filipino workers displaced by the Iraq-Iran War. It remained open despite the bombing of Baghdad at the height of the first Gulf War in 1991 and the international sanctions that followed and even during the United States-led action that led to the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Embassy remained open until the sectarian bloodletting between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority that followed Saddam’s ouster prompted Manila to order Filipino diplomats to temporarily transfer operations to neighboring Jordan two years later. Only the Iraqi local hires were left to secure the chancery.

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Undersecretary Seguis’s team was the first to visit the Embassy since the 2005 evacuation to Amman. He said the building, which the Department continued to lease for $70,000.00 annually, would require a major facelift should Secretary del Rosario decide to reestablish Philippine diplomatic presence in Iraq.

The Secretary sent us here to assess the security situation and the conditions of the estimated 4,000 Filipino workers in Baghdad and the northern Kurdistan region who are mostly employed by companies under contract with the US military.

It was our job to give the recommendation. On the flight back to Manila, I started working on the recommendation based on the inputs of the other members of the team. Undersecretary Seguis submitted this to the Secretary upon our arrival in Manila.

Two months later, Baghdad PE was reopened. Little did I know that almost four years after, I would be returning to Iraq but only this time to serve as head of post.

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