- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 29, 2002

CEBU, Philippines Pot-bellied expatriates on their way to a hardscrabble military golf course were, until a few weeks ago, the only Americans you would find inside the Mactan Benito Ebuen Air Base.
Then, the U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemasters began touching down on the runway, carrying American troops and weapons for the war against al Qaeda-linked terrorists in the southern Philippines. The arrival of the mammoth cargo planes attracted a familiar crowd of leftists and nationalists, chanting "Yankee go home."
By this past weekend, an ugly scuffle had broken out between protesters and Philippine air force guards just outside the front gate of the base, a 15-minute ride from this central Philippine city.
The U.S. troop buildup here is highlighting the ambivalent nature of relations between the United States and the Philippines, which remained a U.S. colony until just after World War II. It also is serving as a lightning rod for the year-old coalition of leftists, nationalists and disgruntled opposition politicians critical of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
The American presence, the largest overseas deployment of U.S. troops in the wake of the Afghan war, officially is part of a six-month joint-training exercise with Philippine troops.
But most people recognize it as something more, an effort to put armed, elite U.S. forces on the ground with their Philippine counterparts in an attempt to root out the Abu Sayyaf terrorists.
The group, formed a decade ago by a Filipino who fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan, has been holding hostage two American missionaries and a Philippine nurse for more than eight months on the far southern island of Basilan.
Anti-American demonstrations in the Philippines always have been equal parts politics and street theater. In the latest twist, women from the leftist Sanlakas movement paraded in the streets wrapped only in bath towels, "Yankee Go Home" scrawled in lipstick above their breasts.
Such antics grab headlines but mask the reality: Most Filipinos welcome the Americans and side with Mrs. Arroyo's stance that the country's constitution allows the presence of what eventually will be 650 U.S. soldiers.
"What our politicians are beginning to realize, even the ones hostile to the American presence, is that most Filipinos are so sick and tired of the Abu Sayyaf problem that they are happy the Americans are coming to zap the rascals," Max Soliven, a popular columnist and publisher of the Philippine Star newspaper, said in a recent column. The turmoil caused by a string of Abu Sayyaf kidnappings has devastated the Philippine tourism industry and chased away foreign investors.
The Social Weather Stations, a respected, nonpartisan polling organization, found in a recent survey that 80 percent of all respondents "trusted" the United States and 8 percent "distrusted" it.
When two giant U.S. bases in the Philippines were forced out more than a decade ago by a nationalist-minded Philippine Senate, most Filipinos mourned the loss.
For Mrs. Arroyo, who will be traveling abroad during the next 10 days, the battle over American troops isn't with the masses or the extreme left, the latter of which never was her natural constituency.
Rather, it is with the business and political elite.
Some of those critics have legitimate policy differences with the president, but many simply are disgruntled they didn't share in the spoils after she came into office with the ouster of Joseph Estrada.
Last week, the president sidestepped a potentially damaging confrontation when her vice president, Teofisto Guingona, pondered resignation over the issue of U.S. troops. Mr. Guingona, who also serves as foreign secretary, eventually backed down.
Roilo Golez, the president's national security adviser, has urged opponents of the U.S. military presence to take their protests from the streets to the courts.
"If they are very confident about their position, they should go there," Mr. Golez said, referring to the Philippine high court. "It can't be resolved by burning the flag of a friendly country or by hurling invectives at the embassy of a friendly country."
Meanwhile, Martin and Gracia Burnham, missionaries from Kansas, and Philippine nurse Deborah Yap are entering their ninth month of captivity in the dense jungles of Basilan.
About 70 U.S. military trainers have arrived in Zamboanga, a southern port city 17 miles from Basilan, to set up a communications and logistics center for the six-month joint-military operation. Thirty more are at the air base on Mactan, outside Cebu.
The U.S. advisers and the equipment they have brought refurbished helicopters, a high-speed Navy boat, M-16 rifles, grenade launchers and night-vision goggles are certain to help in the fight against Abu Sayyaf.
But the Philippine military is no longer making its once-frequent predictions of the imminent rescue of the Burnhams.

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