U.S. troops to fight in Philippines
New York Times
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The United States will send nearly 2,000 troops to the Philippines in the next few weeks to fight Muslim extremists in the southern part of the country, opening a new front in the fight against terrorism, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
A six-month training mission in the Philippines last year limited 1,300 U.S. troops, including 160 special forces soldiers, to an advisory role. But this mission will be a combat operation with no such restrictions on U.S. and Philippine troops serving side by side, military officials said.
Under the plan, about 750 ground troops, including 350 special operations forces, will conduct or support combat patrols in the jungles of Sulu Province. In addition, about 1,000 Marines, supported by Cobra attack helicopters and Harrier AV-8B attack planes, will stand ready aboard two ships offshore to act as a quick-response force and provide logistics and medical support. The first troops are expected to arrive within days, officials said. Maj. Gen. Joseph Weber, commander of the Third Marine Division, will lead the U.S. force.
The operation will last as long as necessary "to disrupt and destroy" the estimated 250 members of the extremist group Abu Sayyaf, one official said.
Philippine and U.S. officials said they agreed to begin the joint offensive now for several reasons. Negotiations between the countries have been on-going for months, but Abu Sayyaf's repeated attacks and the bombing death of an American Green Beret last November spurred Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to work out an aggressive plan.
Dispatching U.S. commandos to the southern Philippines comes at a convenient moment for Pentagon officials, who have sought to show that the U.S. military can fight a war with Iraq and still carry out a global hunt for terrorists.
Arroyo has walked a political tightrope at home on the sensitive issue of welcoming U.S. military help to defeat a deadly foe.
The Philippine constitution prohibits foreign troops from carrying out unilateral combat missions, but U.S. forces will technically play a supporting role in the Philippine-led operation, a distinction that may allow Arroyo and her supporters to skirt the legal issue. "It's something they will have to finesse," a senior U.S. official said.
The combat operation, which goes well beyond an ongoing set of training missions, reflects the Pentagon's growing concern that militant Islamic networks pose an increasing threat to Americans and U.S. interests in Southeast Asia.
"The Philippines have a terrorist problem and we have offered our assistance," a senior Pentagon official said Thursday. "Over time, that assistance takes different shapes and forms. The Philippines have invited us to expand our role with them."