MANILA, Jan. 8 (Xinhua) -- The Philippines on Wednesday expressed "deep concern over the events in Iraq" and the impacts they will have on peace and the stability of the Middle East region.
"The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) expressed deep concern over the events in Iraq and its implications on peace and security in the region," Philippine Foreign Assistant Secretary Eduardo Menez said in a statement.
In view of the escalating events in Iraq, Menez said the DFA has raised the alert level in the whole of Iraq. "The Philippine Embassy in Baghdad has been tasked to effect the mandatory evacuation of Filipinos estimated to be around 1,640 in that country," Menez added.
In accordance with the instructions of President Rodrigo Duterte, Menez said Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, the Philippines' special envoy to the Middle East, will go to the Middle East to oversee the repatriation.
In an news conference, Cimatu stressed the need to start the "preemptive evacuation" as soon as possible.
"We should be prepared for any eventualities. We need to get them out of Iraq at once," he said, adding the government plans to use commercial planes to move Filipinos out of Iraq.
Cimatu, a former military general, said he will leave for Baghdad on Thursday to oversee the mass evacuation. Already, he said efforts were underway to bring Filipinos to the Philippine Embassy in Baghdad in preparation for the evacuation.
President Duterte has ordered the deployment of two battalions of soldiers to the Middle East to help repatriate thousands of Filipino migrant workers in that region amid rising tensions between the United States and Iran, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Wednesday.
A battalion is composed of up to 500 soldiers.
Lorenzana said the rules of engagement for the mission were still being worked out, citing the sensitivity of the mission. He stressed that the mission was not combat in nature but to protect the evacuating Filipinos.
"We will be very careful because we don't want to get involved in case a shooting war breaks out," he told reporters.
Lorenzana clarified that the idea was "still in the planning stage."
"We are still preparing the troops while Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin is coordinating with the governments of Iran and Iraq on the documents needed to allow the entry of the troops," Lorenzana said.
He said the Philippines plans to dispatch cargo planes and ships to transport its citizens out of the danger zone.
"We need to know where our planes can land and our ships can dock, the refuelling, the refurbishment and the like. Those things are needed to be arranged," he added.
Philippine authorities said Filipinos in Iraq, Iran, Libya and Lebanon are first to be forcibly evacuated.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello said there are an estimated 1,184 Filipinos in Iran, 2,191 in Iraq, 3,286 in Libya and 33,424 in Lebanon that need to be evacuated to safer grounds.
He said at another news conference that there are an estimated 2.2 million Filipinos in the Middle East, but he said the number of Filipinos "could double because of the presence of undocumented Filipinos" who sneaked into that region illegally.
Bello said all Filipinos living in Iraq, Iran, Libya and Lebanon will be ordered to return to the Philippines after the highest threat alert was raised to 4 in those Middle Eastern countries.
The government said it is also considering tapping the services of cruise ships. The Philippine Coast Guard said its brand new ship, which is now in Malta after leaving France in December, is headed to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to carry out repatriation missions.
Philippine authorities are still checking if there are any Filipino casualties in the Iran attack on a U.S. base in Iraq where about 600 Filipinos are working.
Conflict between the U.S. and Iraq heightened after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike that killed an Iranian general in Baghdad on Jan. 3.