- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

CEBU, Philippines As U.S. troops begin joint military exercises today in the southern Philippines, few people in the country seem to believe government claims that the Americans aren't going to war.
Officially, the six-month exercise is intended to upgrade the capabilities of the cash-strapped armed forces of the Philippines, which has been unable to rescue two American hostages held for more than eight months by the Abu Sayyaf, a kidnap-for-ransom gang with links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.
But the deployment of some 650 U.S. soldiers to within easy striking distance of the Abu Sayyaf lair on Basilan, an island province in the far southwest reaches of the Philippine archipelago, has convinced many locals, politicians and military analysts that the Americans will soon be deeply embroiled in the conflict.
"Just take a look at those boys they're sending in," said a retired U.S. Marine officer monitoring the situation. "They're shooters, not advisers."
For the past two weeks, U.S. Air Force planes have been ferrying troops and supplies to Zamboanga, a port city on the giant southern island of Mindanao, just 17 miles from Basilan. Some 140 U.S. troops already have arrived, according to Maj. Cynthia Teramae, a spokeswoman for the U.S. force in the Philippines.
While the Americans are authorized to use their weapons in self-defense, Roilo Golez, the Philippine national security adviser, denied they would be involved in combat against the Muslim rebels.
Philippine Rep. Prospero Pichay, who chairs the House defense and national security committee, yesterday acknowledged that military exercises in a hostile war zone with live ammunition would be "a deviation" from previous exercises. "But I support it anyway if it means crushing the homegrown terrorists," he said, expressing an opinion heard often here.
A survey conducted last November by the Social Weather Stations, a respected national polling group, found that 84 percent of those questioned approved of the prospect of U.S. military assistance and only 16 percent disapproved. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines also welcomed U.S. military assistance.
The war games, which will include 160 special-operations troops, marks the largest overseas deployment of U.S. soldiers in the wake of the Afghanistan war.
The start of the exercises was delayed a day as U.S. and Philippine officials quibbled over whether the war games would be dubbed an "exercise" or an "operation" a semantic difference that does little to mask the goal: wipe out the Abu Sayyaf.
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Bush emphasized the need to carry the war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan.
"We now have troops in the Philippines helping to train that country's armed forces to go after terrorist cells that have executed an American and still hold hostages," Mr. Bush said.
The Abu Sayyaf beheaded Guillermo Sobero, a California resident kidnapped from a Philippine beach resort, last June and continues to hold two American missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham and Philippine nurse Deborah Yap.
Adm. Dennis Blair, who heads the U.S. Pacific Command, said in Singapore on Monday that American activities in the region are intended to make sure that Asia is not the last bastion of al Qaeda and to make it as inhospitable for terrorists to come here as possible.
Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, serving a life sentence in the United States for masterminding the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, planned that attack while living in the Philippines.


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