Manila, Feb. 6, 2003 (Malaya) -- The country faces the "very real prospect" of retaliatory attacks by Muslim militants on American and other foreign targets if the United States launches a war against Iraq, Gen. Dionisio Santiago, AFP chief of staff, said yesterday.

"The possibility is very strong. Nobody will be spared," he said.

He added: "I'm very sure, if I were Saddam Hussein, I would be ready to attack the friendly forces, the friendly countries to the US, which are very near me. You consider all the possibilities and the Philippines is always part of the possibilities."

Dionisio said any attack would be designed to "make people feel that being sympathetic to the Americans will not work."

The violence may spread beyond the southern Mindanao region, where troops have been fighting a Muslim separatist rebellion for more than three decades, he said.

"It will just be a repetition of what they have been doing, but maybe on a bigger scale," he said.

Intelligence agencies have accused the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the biggest of several Muslim militant factions in the south, and the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang, of links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

MILF guerrillas were blamed by the police for the December 2000 LRT bombing that killed 22 people and wounded more than 100.

Muslim radicals were also linked to a spate of bombings in October that killed 14 people, including a US soldier.

Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said Jemaah Islamiah, a Southeast Asian militant Muslim group blamed for deadly bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali in October, might also carry out attacks in the Philippines.

"We should be prepared for such reaction from the JI, who would want to exploit the situation," Reyes said after meeting US Army chief of staff Gen. Erik Shinseki.

The warnings from Dionisio and Reyes came a day after President Arroyo urged the United Nations "to act with dispatch and force" if Iraq failed to disarm. She said blame would fall squarely on Baghdad if war broke out.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said the Philippine government has not made a stand on the US-Iraq issue.

"A lot would depend on the events in the next few days. The final decision rests on the president alone," said Victoriano Lecaros, DFA spokesman.

Dionisio said the kind of support the Philippines might give the United States during a war in Iraq was still being discussed.

Among possible options were US Air Force overflights and use of the country as a refueling point, he said.

On February 18, hundreds of US special forces are due to begin the second phase of military exercises in southern Mindanao aimed at upgrading the anti-terrorism skills of local troops.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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