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U.S. confused by Philippine decision

From Andrea Koppel
CNN Washington Bureau

Angelo de la Cruz is shown in this image from a video made by his kidnappers.
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Scott McClellan

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration has expressed concern and confusion over an apparent decision by the Philippine government to withdraw troops from Iraq ahead of schedule.

The latest announcement from the government of President Gloria Arroyo said the country would pull its humanitarian force out of Iraq "as soon as possible."

The government decision follows threats by terrorists in Iraq to behead a Filipino hostage if Manila doesn't withdraw its forces.

"We believe that a decision by the Philippine government to withdraw their 51 troops ahead of schedule would send the wrong signal to terrorists," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher added, "As you know, our policy is not to negotiate or provide benefits to terrorists. We think that can send a wrong signal. And that's why we're disappointed to see statements like this."

Boucher said the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines met with President Arroyo Tuesday to seek clarification on precisely what "as soon as possible" means in terms of troop withdrawals.

With roughly 51 troops, the Philippine presence in Iraq is a nominal one and the contingent was already scheduled to leave August 20.

Privately, a senior State Department official said the United States was "surprised by the statement," considering the tough track record on terrorism held by Arroyo's government.

This same official said it was unclear whether the statement was part of a negotiating tactic by the Philippines to win the release of its hostage without making real concessions or whether it was a change in policy.

"You can't clarify it. I can't clarify it. We don't know. We're waiting for clarification," said Boucher.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke with Arroyo and asked her to keep her troops in Iraq at least until the August 20 rotation "to help the Iraqi people."

Arroyo told Powell the Philippines would "keep their commitment," said a senior State Department official.

Another senior State Department official said he worried terrorists in Iraq will seize upon any about-face by the Philippines and could encourage them to take more hostages.

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