- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

The U.S.-trained Philippine army is moving closer to the jungle area where a violent Islamic guerrilla group is holding a kidnapped American couple.
"They are tightening the noose," a senior U.S. military official said yesterday. "The noose is getting tighter and it's a combination of the Philippine armed forces pressing harder in pursuit, along with very extensive human intelligence, combined with the assistance and advice being provided by U.S. Special Forces."
The Philippine soldiers are hunting down pockets of Abu Sayyaf, an extremist rebel group with ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. U.S. military officials believe the hostages, American missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham, and a local nurse, remain alive.
As part of the war on terrorism, the Pentagon has dispatched 600 troops to the Southeast Asian archipelago. Only the Afghanistan theater, with 6,000 American forces, has required more ground troops in this increasingly global conflict.
U.S. forces are under restraining rules in the Philippines, unlike their brethren in Afghanistan who are pounding al Qaeda terrorists from the air and on the ground.
A contingent of about 150 Green Berets are stationed at battalion headquarters on Basilan island and are restricted from direct combat. Experts in counterinsurgency warfare, the Green Berets stay in constant communication with the commanders of about 3,000 Philippine soldiers.
The commandos make up part of the 600-strong Joint Task Force-510 that is training and holding exercises with Philippine army units.
With U.S. advice, as well as training and sharing of intelligence, the local army has killed scores of Abu Sayyaf fighters and has kept others on the run.
"You're got to keep in mind the topography is very difficult," the military official said. "We're talking about deep ravines and gorges and hilly and mountainous terrain. Even though it may be a small area, it is not easy terrain to maneuver in."
Officials say the Philippine army is making tactical improvements and showing a new desire to win with the help of Special Forces A Teams. Afghan anti-Taliban tribesmen displayed similar gains when they hooked up with American fighters.
The army last June reportedly cornered Abu Sayyaf leaders, then inexplicably let them and their hostages go. U.S. officials say there will be no repeat of that fiasco.
Navy Adm. Dennis Blair, who is overseeing operations as head of the U.S. Pacific Command, last week predicted victory on Basilan when addressing an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.
The four-star officer, who retires in May, profiled Abu Sayyaf this way: "There are historical ties with al Qaeda, some current ties. It's generally a criminal organization as well as a terrorist organization."
In other developments on the anti-terror front, a Navy SEAL was killed and another wounded from a land mine blast in southern Afghanistan. The Pentagon said Navy Chief Petty Officer Matthew Bourgeoris, 35, was on a training mission south of Kandahar when he was killed, becoming the 31st American death in the war.
U.S. forces continue to watch for pockets of al Qaeda and hardcore Taliban fighters in a mission that will likely last into 2003.
Despite the protracted stay there, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the armed forces stand ready to fight in another theater.
"You can be absolutely certain that to the extent that the United States of America decides to undertake an activity, that we will be capable of doing it," Mr. Rumsfeld told at a Pentagon press conference.
He seemed to part company with some of his top commanders who told Congress last week that they cannot perform all their missions due to battle assets tied up in the war in Afghanistan.
"We do not have adequate forces to carry out our missions for the Pacific if the operations in [Afghanistan] continue at their recent past and current pace," Adm. Blair told the House Armed Services Committee.
Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, the top commander in Europe, gave similar testimony.
The military's readiness has become an even more important question now that President Bush and his top national security advisers have agreed on a policy of deposing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
There are fears among analysts that the military does not have sufficient stocks of precision-guided munitions to wage an effective air war against Iraq.
Said Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, "We'll be ready to do whatever the president asks us to do."


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