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Plan Allowing US Troops in Combat Draws Opposition in Philippines - 2003-02-22

Philippine political leaders are bracing for strong opposition to a reported plan allowing American soldiers to engage in combat against Muslim rebels in the South. The Philippine government is expected legal challenges and street protests.

A political storm is brewing in the Philippines over a reported plan for American troops play an active role in the fight against the country's Muslim guerrillas.

1,700 U.S. soldiers, including 350 special operations troops, are on their way to the Philippines. The plan is to send them to Jolo Island, part of the Sulu Archipelago in the far South, where Muslim separatist groups are active.

Last year, American troops spent six months training their Philippine counterparts in anti-insurgency warfare, but carefully avoided any contact with the Muslim rebels. On Thursday, however, Pentagon officials were quoting as saying that this time, the Americans would be involved in an offensive role against the Abu Sayyaf, a rebel group that Washington has linked to the al-Quaida terror network.

Street protests against a foreign military role in the country are expected in Manila, and a legal challenge also seems certain if the plan goes ahead. The country's Supreme Court has ruled that U.S. trainers can only shoot in self-defense, and the constitution prohibits the presence of foreign military facilities and troops unless covered by treaty.

There is likely to be opposition in the South as well. Critics of the deployment expect the Abu Sayyaf rebels to try to exploit their religious affinity with the local villagers. Jolo Island's population is almost entirely Muslim, in contrast to predominately Christian population in the North of the country.

The government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is attempting to downplay the situation without actually denying it. Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes told reporters that no actions that violate the Philippines' constitution or laws will be permitted.

But when he was asked if it was possible for the American troops to engage in combat, he sidestepped the question, saying that was "a matter for lawyers to decide."

American troops carried out a six-month training session in the Philippines last year. Then, the 1,300 soldiers were limited to advisory and logistics roles, with permission to fire only in self-defense.

The U.S. force deployment this time is planned by senior Philippine officials as a serious attempt to rid the region of the Abu Sayyaf, which remains active despite repeated efforts to eliminate it.