WASHINGTON (AP) - The Iraq war is not only a major election-year problem for the Bush administration, it is proving a monumental political pain for America's friends.

The Philippine government Tuesday said it was withdrawing its 51-soldier contingent from Iraq ahead of its scheduled Aug. 20 departure to save the life of a Filipino hostage. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo faced the decision under pressure of a disputed election victory that has led to demonstrations, protests and general unease.

Arroyo's foreign minister was in Iraq trying to work out a deal to save hostage Angelo dela Cruz's life.

An early departure from the unpopular war as demanded by the kidnappers would place the Philippines on the road out of Iraq alongside Spain, which left after a pre-election terrorist attack in Madrid.

The former U.S. colony also is bunched as terror targets with Bulgaria, Egypt, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and the United States, nations whose citizens have been used as bargaining chips by Islamic militants.

Like the others, Arroyo's government has been subjected to high-level U.S. pleading to stick it out, a strategy that Washington employed successfully with the others.

The U.S. administration is none too happy with the Philippine situation.

"Our policy is not to negotiate or provide benefit to terrorists. We think that can send a wrong signal, and that's why we're disappointed to see statements like this," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday.

The Philippines' dilemma certainly is not unique. Like most governments participating in the U.S.-led coalition, the Arroyo administration wanted positive relations with the United States and concluded that lending support in Iraq would enhance them.

Filipino officials also were sensitive to the possibility of national outrage should they fail to secure freedom for dela Cruz, a 46-year-old truck driver and father of eight. Arroyo has been under blistering criticism for her handling of the kidnapping crisis, and protesters have taken to the streets of Manila for two straight days.

The Bush administration should not be surprised by Manila's actions, said Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. As time passes without hard proof to back up the rationale for war, such as the discovery of ousted President Saddam Hussein's destructive weapons, coalition countries are less able to explain why they remain in Iraq, Walt said.

"These governments look naive for having believed us," Walt said. "You don't want to see other governments succumbing to this kind of blackmail. But we ought to recognize that there are reasons why foreign governments are feeling the heat, and the reason is that the original case for war turned out to be a sham."

Hoping to keep the Philippines in the fold, Secretary of State Colin Powell called Arroyo. Similarly, U.S. officials reached out to Seoul with personal assurances when South Korea saw one of its citizens beheaded in Iraq, and to Japanese President Junichiro Koizumi, who held firm in Iraq after three kidnapped Japanese citizens were released.

To soften the impact of the Philippine withdrawal on its international standing, the United States also praised Australia for deciding to send more soldiers to Iraq and El Salvador for extending its troops' stay by a year.

Even so, more problems loomed. Bulgaria, which has two citizens held captive, grappled with reports that one of two Bulgarian truck drivers taken hostage had been killed.

"What is the U.S. giving these countries? Basically nothing," said Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, senior fellow for trans-Atlantic relations at Johns Hopkins University. "A lot of countries say the U.S. got us in this mess, it's basically up to the U.S. to deal with the problems.

"What you will hear in public opinion or elsewhere is the U.S. policy toward Iraq before and now was flawed. And unless that policy changes, one is really willing to engage internationally on this issue, it's going to be a difficult situation," she said.

Changes in Washington did not seem to be forthcoming.

"There is a difference between leading a coalition of many nations and submitting to the objections of a few," Vice President Dick Cheney said Monday at a fund-raiser in Pennsylvania. "The United States will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country."