- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

President Bush yesterday announced the United States would deploy more troops in the Philippines to help the country battle Muslim rebels, a move applauded by Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Mr. Bush, standing side by side with Mrs. Arroyo in the White House East Room, also designated the Asian nation as a “major non-NATO ally,” elevating the Philippines to the status of Australia, Israel and Egypt, and making it eligible for more U.S. arms and other defense cooperation.

“The Philippines and the United States are strong allies in the war on terror,” Mr. Bush said. “The murder of citizens from both our countries last week in Saudi Arabia reminds us that this war is far from over. The Philippine government is strongly committed to defeating terrorists operating in its own part of the world.”

Mrs. Arroyo, who took office on the same day in 2001 as Mr. Bush, was among the first foreign leaders to telephone the U.S. president after the September 11 attacks.

“It was more than the condolence call, it was a ‘Let’s get after them’ call. And I knew that we had — I had a strong ally and friend when it came to chasing these people down, which is precisely what we have to do,” Mr. Bush said. “She’s tough when it comes to terror.”

Since then, Mrs. Arroyo has backed U.S.-led efforts to fight terrorism and has been a strong supporter of the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

“While Asia must take greater responsibility for its own political and economic security, it must also recognize that strong relations with the U.S. will contribute greatly to regional peace and prosperity, stability and security, especially from terrorism,” she said at a formal White House arrival ceremony.

The two leaders agreed to deploy an unspecified number of U.S. troops to “support” operations against Abu Sayyaf rebels in the southern Philippines, a Muslim terrorist group with links to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.

The United States and the Philippines “reaffirmed their commitment to destroy the Abu Sayyaf group once and for all,” the two leaders said in their joint statement.

The United States last year deployed special operations troops in the Philippines to train and aid Philippine forces in their war on Abu Sayyaf.

“President Arroyo and I reviewed last year’s highly successful deployment of U.S. troops to the southern Philippines, and we agreed to a similar deployment in the near term, in which U.S. forces would support Philippine-led antiterror operations,” Mr. Bush said.

The United States also pledged $30 million in aid for the southern island of Mindanao and support for peace talks with the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the region. The White House also said it would provide 20 helicopters to the Philippine military, and $65 million to train and equip it to fight terrorism.

Mrs. Arroyo ordered a three-day offensive on Mindanao against MILF guerrilla units over the weekend as she began her U.S. visit. The operations killed about 60 terrorists, Philippine military officials told reporters yesterday.

But Gen. Narciso Abaya, the Philippine military chief of staff, called for more-extensive aid at a news conference in Manila, setting out requests worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“There are certain capabilities that we would like the armed forces of the Philippines to have in order to meet its mandated tasks, and the priority right now is how to end these internal security problems that we have,” Gen. Abaya said.

Manila needs helicopters, transport aircraft, improved communications capability and new patrol boats, he said.

In Washington, taking aim at opponents of the U.S.-led war, Mrs. Arroyo said: “There may be others who might feel tainted or hostile about U.S. leadership in the war against terrorism. We believe that the U.S. leadership and engagement with the U.S. makes the world a safer place for all of us to live in.”

Mr. Bush has rewarded his strongest supporters of the Iraq war. Mrs. Arroyo was the guest of honor last night at just the Bush administration’s third state dinner, an honor previously bestowed only on the presidents of Poland and Mexico.

In their joint White House appearance, Mr. Bush announced he would visit the Philippines this fall during a trip to the Asia-Pacific region for an economic summit in Thailand. The president also is expected to visit another staunch supporter in the war on terror: Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

On other issues, Mrs. Arroyo is seeking duty-free privileges for Philippine products, such as dried mangoes, pineapple juice and tuna.

She also wants Philippine businesses to get reconstruction contracts in Iraq and is trying to lure U.S. companies to invest in operations on the islands.

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