- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS
In a major expansion of American military involvement in the Philippines, hundreds of U.S. special-operations troops will soon take frontline combat roles against Abu Sayyaf rebels, officials say.
But Philippine leaders battled yesterday to quell growing political turmoil triggered by Washington's disclosure.
Unlike previous arrangements in which U.S. troops played advisory roles out of the line of fire, the American and Philippine governments agreed to place U.S. troops alongside Philippine soldiers in direct combat, U.S. defense officials said Thursday. They spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The announcement is likely to lead to street protests and a legal challenge in the Philippines, where the Supreme Court has ruled that U.S. troops can shoot only in self-defense, and that the constitution prohibits the presence of foreign military facilities and troops unless covered by treaty.
Philippine officials chose their words carefully yesterday when asked about the reports from Washington.
"I am categorically saying that anything that they say that contradicts the constitution and the laws will not materialize," Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said.
Pressed on whether it was possible for U.S. troops to have combat roles in the country, he replied, "That is a matter for lawyers to decide."
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did not comment but said last year that she believes a combat role for U.S. troops in the Philippines is legal.
In 2002, protesters gathered almost daily outside the U.S. Embassy while American troops conducted six months of counterterrorism training with the Philippine military near a southern combat zone.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, though declining to discuss details of the military operation, said it was "another example of where the world stands united" in the battle against terrorism.
He called the Abu Sayyaf group a "deadly organization" that could not be allowed to have its way. Mr. Fleischer briefed reporters in Crawford, Texas, near the president's ranch.
The joint offensive is expected to start in March, with the exact date to be determined by the Manila government.
Several terrorist groups some suspected of having links to al Qaeda, such as the Islamic extremist network Jemaah Islamiyah operate in the Philippines, and there have been a series of deadly bombings, kidnappings and other attacks against both government and civilian targets. An Oct. 2 incident blamed on Abu Sayyaf killed three persons, including a U.S. Green Beret in Zamboanga.
Pentagon officials say investigations after some of those attacks have turned up information indicating the link between the Abu Sayyaf and the Jemaah Islamiyah of Indonesia may be stronger than earlier believed.
About 350 U.S. special-operations forces, mostly Army Green Berets, will be involved in the offensive in the Sulu Archipelago, with much of the effort focused on the island of Jolo, the officials said. They will be supported by about 400 more U.S. troops based to the north in the port city of Zamboanga.
In addition to the U.S. special-operations forces and the support personnel, a team of about 1,000 Marines aboard Navy ships off the coast of the Sulu Archipelago will be available to respond on short notice with air power, logistics help and medical aid, the U.S. officials said.
The Marines are part of the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, and their lead ship is the USS Essex, based at Sasebo, Japan.
It was not immediately clear how many Philippine forces would be involved in the offensive.
U.S. officials said the March offensive would go well beyond training to include direct combat roles for U.S. forces.
The purpose, one official said, is to "disrupt and defeat the Abu Sayyaf group." He said the effort had no time limit and would continue as long as both governments agreed it was needed. There are believed to be several hundred Abu Sayyaf rebels in the Philippines.


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