- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 5, 2002

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday he wants more information before agreeing to commanders' requests to let American soldiers patrol alongside local troops and possibly clash with notorious Abu Sayyaf terrorists in the Philippines.

The current and just-retired Pacific commanders have urged Mr. Rumsfeld to permit deeper involvement. The recommendations reflect frustrations in the 4-month-old mission that has Abu Sayyaf guerrillas on the run, but has failed to kill or capture top leaders.

A U.S. force of about 1,000 on Basilan Island, including 160 Green Berets, is now restricted to advising local troops from headquarters at the battalion level.

Adm. Thomas Fargo, who recently assumed the Pacific Command from Adm. Dennis Blair, wants to grant a Philippine request to move American warriors to the smaller company level on patrols. There, Green Berets, who specialize in counter-guerrilla warfare, could directly help Filipinos track and attack Abu Sayyaf.

Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday that presentations from his commanders have not yet persuaded him to recommend an expanded mission to President Bush. Besides Afghanistan, where the United States has 7,000 troops, the Philippines is the largest theater in the war on terrorism.

"I just haven't had it presented to me in a way that I felt sufficiently comfortable that I understood what was involved, what the cost would be, what the numbers of people would be, what the benefit might be," the defense chief said. "I'm the kind of person who says, 'Well, come back and come at me again with that.'"

The U.S. military training is scheduled to end July 31. But there is a widespread belief in the Pentagon and in the Philippines that the mission will be extended until it eliminates the extremist terror group that is fighting for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines. It has ties to Osama bin Laden and routinely kidnaps civilians.

"There was consensus that training will be intensified and pushed forward to the company level," said a spokesman for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo after a meeting this week with the visiting U.S. deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz. "This is closer to the action."

Mr. Rumsfeld expressed some frustration with the mission to date, amid reports that a smattering of Abu Sayyaf fighters have fled to neighboring islands in the southern Philippines.

"You can improve the situation in one place by our presence, but unless you get the terrorists you have not improved the situation net in the world," he said. "And there has been very little of getting terrorists in the Philippines thus far."

Complicating matters is the fact Abu Sayyaf since March 2001 has held two American missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham of Rose Hill, Kan. The United States, in a covert operation, paid $300,000 ransom for the couple's release earlier this year. But Abu Sayyaf reneged on its end of the deal and now wants more money.

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