The Philippine army said on Tuesday it was ready to withdraw from Iraq pending a formal order to do so after deputy foreign minister Rafael Seguis made an offer on Aljazeera television on Monday to withdraw Manila's forces as soon as possible.

But it was not clear if any pullout would be earlier than the 20 August date Manila had set for the withdrawal of its 50-odd personnel before de la Cruz's capture.

"We have not had an order from any office regarding the pullout," said army spokesman Daniel Lucero. "We are prepared to implement our withdrawal plan."
 
Lucero said the plan had been in place ever since the humanitarian contingent was deployed a year ago and could be quickly implemented. Philippine officials are also holding an emergency meeting at the Foreign Ministry.

Tough decision

Earlier, a group calling itself the Khalid Ibn al-Walid Brigade threatened to behead the Filipino truck driver, Angelo de la Cruz, by Tuesday unless Manila withdrew its contingent by 20 July.

The truck driver's capture has put
President Arroyo in a dilemma

On Sunday, Philippine President Gloria Arroyo refused to succumb to their threat. She faces a tough dilemma between saving de la Cruz, a 46-year-old father of eight, and maintaining her staunch alliance with the United States, a major donor of military aid to Manila.

De la Cruz was seized last week as he drove a truckload of crude oil from neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

In his television statement, Seguis said: "In response to your request, the Philippines ... will withdraw its humanitarian forces as soon as possible." He gave no date for a withdrawal.

"I hope the statement that I read will touch the heart of this group," said Seguis. "We know that Islam is the religion of peace and mercy."

Foreigners targeted

Armed groups have seized dozens of foreigners since April to press demands for foreign troops to leave Iraq. Many captives have been freed but at least three have been killed.

Bulgaria said it was confident two of its nationals held captive in Iraq were alive despite the expiry of an execution deadline on Friday.

De la Cruz's earnings support a
family comprising eight children

Spain withdrew its troops from Iraq after suspected al-Qaida-linked fighters attacked Madrid commuter trains in March, killing 191 people, in what they said was revenge for Spanish involvement with US-led occupation forces. Honduras and the Dominican Republic later cut short their forces' stay in Iraq.

But Australia, a staunch US ally, said it is boosting the number of its troops in Iraq to better protect diplomats and personnel training the Iraqi military, said Defence Minister Robert Hill.

Canberra is doubling its light armoured vehicles in Iraq to 12 and sending 30 extra army personnel, bringing the Australian security detachment to 120 and the total number of Australians on duty in and around Iraq to 880.

Fighting unabated

Meanwhile, violence continues to wrack the country.

Clashes erupted between US forces and resistance fighters in the al-Habbaniya district after an occupation base came under rocket-propelled grenade attack in the area, reported Aljazeera's correspondent on Tuesday. There were no casualties reported.

Fighting also broke out at al-Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad, when a police station in the area came under attack. 

In the capital Baghdad, a US patrol was hit by an explosive devise along the highway leading to the airport. Two people, including a US soldier, were wounded.

Two hand grenades were lobbed at a US patrol driving through central Baghdad without causing any injuries or damage, said a US military spokesman.

A series of loud explosions echoed around the Iraqi capital during the morning. Their cause was unclear.