U.S. in Philippines to Train Local Fighters

The Philippines is the next stop on President Bush's global war on terrorism now that a small number of U.S. special forces troops are on the ground there with more set to arrive within the next week.

The handful of military troops on the ground have been there for several months and are making logistical and security preparations for a larger U.S. contingent, which officials said could number about 100. More troops are set to arrive by next week, at the earliest, and in groups of between one and two dozen at a time.

Pentagon officials said the Americans were not in place to wage combat on suspected terrorists in the Philippines but to help train the local military to do the job. The U.S. role will be strictly as advisers and instructors to the Philippine military as it combats the radical Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf.

"We all know that the Philippine government has been very seriously attempting to deal with terrorists on one or two islands," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday, referring to Abu Sayyaf.

Abu Sayyaf is based on a remote southern island of the mostly Catholic country and has known ties to Osama bin Laden and the global terrorist network al Qaeda, the subject of the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. Abu Sayyaf has gained some attention in the United States because for the past eight months it has held hostage an American couple from Kansas. Martin and Gracia Burnham were kidnapped from a luxury tourist resort in the western part of the country May 27, 2001.

Bush pledged U.S. support to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when she visited Washington, D.C., last fall. Among other things, the U.S. will provide American warplanes, $100 million in debt relief and trade assistance to the Philippines. It would take an act of the Philippine Congress for U.S. troops to actually engage in combat there.

On Front Lines?

But while the U.S. troops may be officially barred from engaging Abu Sayyaf in combat, officials from the Philippine military have said that they will be allowed near the action.

"Going to the front line does not necessarily mean that they will be the ones going in direct contact with the enemy," Philippine Gen. Diomedio Villanueva said Wednesday.

One of the first tasks to be undertaken by troops arriving in the Philippines will be to oversee the construction of a training facility where their instruction of unit-sized groups of Philippine troops can take place, said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis.

While U.S. troops have conducted joint exercises with Philippine troops in different capacities since 1993, this new mission is different in both size and focus because it is so narrowly tailored to anti-terrorism activities. Special forces troops from all military branches are expected to take part.

"This is not Afghanistan," said Davis. "There is no hostile government to be deposed. Our mission is to help the government there combat this problem, not use American troops to do the fighting."