WASHINGTON - The United States will send nearly 2,000 troops to the Philippines in the next few weeks to fight Muslim extremists in the southern part of the country, opening a new front in the fight against terrorism, Pentagon officials said yesterday.
A six-month training mission last year in the Philippines limited 1,300 U.S. troops - including 160 Special Forces soldiers - to an advisory role and permitted them to fire only in self-defense in the rare cases when they accompanied Philippine soldiers. But this mission will be a combat operation with no such restrictions on U.S. and Philippine troops serving side by side, military officials said.
Under the plan, about 750 ground troops, including 350 Special Operations forces, will conduct or support combat patrols in the rugged jungles of Sulu province. In addition, about 1,000 Marines, armed with Cobra attack helicopters and Harrier AV-8B attack planes, will stand ready aboard two ships offshore to act as a quick-response force, and provide logistics and medical support. The first troops are expected to arrive within days, officials said.
The operation will last as long as necessary "to disrupt and destroy" the estimated 250 members of the extremist group Abu Sayyaf, one official said, and marks a sharp escalation in the war against terror as the United States builds up for a possible war with Iraq and continues to hunt al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
Philippine and U.S. officials agreed to launch the joint offensive for several reasons, officials said. Negotiations between the two countries have been under way for months, but Abu Sayyaf's repeated attacks and the bombing death of a Green Beret in October spurred President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to hammer out an aggressive plan.
Dispatching U.S. commandos to the jungles of the southern Philippines comes at a convenient moment for Pentagon officials, who have sought to show that the U.S. military can fight a war with Iraq and still carry out a global hunt for terrorists.
Arroyo has walked a political tightrope at home on the sensitive issue of welcoming U.S. military aid to defeat a deadly foe while being careful not to aggravate domestic tensions tied to the United States' role as a former colonial ruler.
Arroyo has said she is not running for re-election, which some diplomats say will make it easier for her to weather the political fallout from what is sure to be a contentious issue in the Philippines. The Philippine Constitution prohibits foreign troops from carrying out unilateral combat missions, but the U.S. forces will technically play a supporting role in the Philippine-led operation, a distinction that may allow Arroyo and her supporters to skirt the legal issue. "It's something they will have to finesse," said one senior American official.
Patricia Paez, a spokeswoman at the Philippine Embassy in Washington, said she had no information on the new operation.
In what many political observers viewed as a political trial balloon, Arroyo's spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, said Monday that U.S. troops would be sent to Sulu province, but he described the mission as an "exercise" that would "more or less" resemble the mission last year on Basilan Island.
The recent U.S. track record in the Philippines may also help sell the new operation to a skeptical domestic audience. By leaving on schedule and honoring the restrictions on accompanying combat patrols, the United States assuaged many fears that last year's training mission on Basilan would turn into a permanent U.S. encampment.
The combat operation, which goes well beyond a continuing set of training missions throughout the Philippines that involves 1,300 U.S. forces, reflects the Pentagon's growing concern that militant Islamic networks pose an increasing threat to Americans and American interests in Southeast Asia.
It also indicates that the training mission with Philippine forces last year on Basilan failed to quell the Muslim guerrilla movement. Only one principal Abu Sayyaf leader was killed during that operation, and the group's other leaders have since reorganized in Sulu province, principally on Jolo Island.
While the mission effectively drove Abu Sayyaf from Basilan and parts of southern Mindanao, the U.S.-trained Philippine forces have not sustained the momentum. Abu Sayyaf has been tied to a string of recent bombings and other attacks in the southern Philippines, including an explosion outside a karaoke bar in November that killed Sgt. 1st Class Mark Wayne Jackson and two Filipinos, and injured many more, Pentagon officials said.
"The Philippines have a terrorist problem, and we have offered our assistance," a senior Pentagon official said yesterday. "Over time, that assistance takes different shapes and forms. The Philippines have invited us to expand our role with them."
Rumsfeld briefed President Bush on the operation last week, a Pentagon official said last night.
The Bush administration has declared Abu Sayyaf a terrorist organization. A decade ago, when the group was founded with a goal to create an Islamic state, Osama bin Laden sent a brother-in-law to coordinate with the group. He provided money and sought to arrange a merger between Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a much larger and more powerful group in the Philippines.
U.S. and Philippine intelligence officials have said the relationship never developed, and Abu Sayyaf degenerated into thugs who kidnapped for ransoms. The group kidnapped several Americans, including Martin and Gracia Burnham, missionaries from Kansas. Martin Burnham and a Filipino nurse were killed June 7 in a botched rescue by Philippine soldiers; Gracia Burnham was wounded and has since returned to the United States.
Some U.S. officials believe that in recent months, Abu Sayyaf has established connections with Jemaah Islamiyah, a radical Islamic network that seeks establishment of an Islamic state across Southeast Asia.
A military assessment team, the vanguard of the larger combat force, is expected to arrive in the Philippines in the next few days, and the full force could be conducting combat operations against the Abu Sayyaf group within a month, a Pentagon official said.
As they have for months, the U.S. Navy will continue to fly regular P-3 reconnaissance missions over the Sulu Archipelago to provide badly needed intelligence to Philippine army forces and U.S. forces. Philippine officials will ultimately be responsible for the timing and scope of operations, but U.S. officials are expected to play an influential role in those decisions.
In a sign of the importance the Pentagon is placing on the mission, the U.S. forces will be led by Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Weber, commander of the 3rd Marine Division, based at Okinawa, Japan.