Manila, March 1, 2003 -- The government has decided to postpone the holding of the Balikatan 03-1 military exercise in Sulu until after the expected war in Iraq is over, Malacañang sources said yesterday.

The decision was made on the recommendation of key security advisers of President Arroyo, who cited the opposition to the reported involvement of US troops in combat operations against the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu, The STAR learned.

As a first step, Mrs. Arroyo issued a 90-day deadline to the Armed Forces "to finish" the Abu Sayyaf problem in Sulu. The deadline coincides with estimates of how long it might take to resolve the crisis in Iraq.

Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, who is in the United States for discussions with his American counterpart Donald Rumsfeld, will formally relay the Philippine government’s decision to postpone the Balikatan in Sulu.

The decision was in line with a recommendation of the Cabinet Oversight Committee on Internal Security. COCIS met at Malacañang Thursday after discussing the objections to the reported combat role of American troops.

Highly placed sources at the Palace told The STAR that the government’s decision focused on the timing of the holding of the military exercise.

"The idea is to postpone Balikatan 03-1 until such things are more clear if ever the US-Iraq war erupts," a Palace source said.

Another Palace official said the COCIS also took note of the concerns and apprehensions raised by residents in Sulu.

"(It is) because the situation in Sulu is different from the case of Basilan where Balikatan 02-1 took place," the official said.

The same official said that in the case of Basilan war exercise, the province has a fairly large Christian population as compared to the Muslims.

He said the residents suffered most from the bandits which explains why the first anti-terrorist training held in the island province got much support from the residents there.

The same sources explained the COCIS gave weight to the assessment of negative sentiments of Sulu residents against the Americans who might favor the Abu Sayyaf bandits who have friends and relatives in the island province.

"So the decision is to put off Balikatan 03-1 for now until the US-Iraq war is over," the Palace source said.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye reiterated that the new terms of reference (TOR) for Balikatan 03-1 in Sulu would follow the same TOR of the Balikatan military exercise held in Basilan where American trainors and military advisers were allowed to conduct the anti-terrorist training exercises "at company level’ with Filipino soldiers.

Bunye said "whatever agreement is reached, they (Americans) would not violate the Constitution and existing laws."

Members of the House committee on defense led by Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay, however, reported out Balikatan 03-1 will go on April this year amidst threat by locals to harm the Americans.

Emerging from a closed door briefing at the Southern Command headquarters in Zamboanga City yesterday, Pichay revealed the military exercise will proceed as scheduled.

Southern Command chief Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya said the schedule "is an estimate of the training and planning department in the general headquarters."

The Mindanao congressman allayed fears and apprehensions of local leaders by citing the success in the Balikatan exercise in Basilan. (By Marichu Villanueva, Star)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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