Manila, March 2, 2003 -- The Pentagon on Friday backed off from a plan to send American combat troops to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf rebels in the Philippines, American media reported yesterday.

US officials in Washington were quoted as saying they believe the two nations had a deal, but that when it engendered opposition, the Philippine government asked the US government to mislead the public about the combat role of American soldiers.

The problem, Pentagon officials said, is that the Philippine government wanted Washington to describe the operation in terms that the US felt did not give American troops sufficient credit and that would not prepare the US public for casualties in hostile terrain where Americans are nearly as unpopular as the Manila government.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his Philippine counterpart, Angelo Reyes, gave up hope of working out a compromise in a Pentagon meeting, acknowledging that a communications failure has stopped the Bush administration from opening a new front in its war on terrorism, the LA Times said.

Underscoring the gap between the two countries, Reyes did not appear at the Pentagon news conference.

That collapse of the talks was made more marked with the scrapping of a joint news conference.

Rumsfeld came instead with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, his usual partner for briefing reporters.

“What has become an increasingly embarrassing dispute between the two nations has served to underscore both the Philippines' love-hate relationship with its former colonial master, and the difficulties the US faces as it tries to make good on President George W. Bush's pledge to hunt down al-Qaeda and break up terrorist networks across the globe,” the California-based news daily reported.

A press release from the US Defense department stated “early last week, the Pentagon was assured that the two nations had a deal to conduct a joint combat offensive against the Moslem rebels in the island of Sulu in Mindanao. When local opposition grew widespread and vociferous, however, the Philippine government asked the US government to mislead Filipinos.”

Rumsfeld said “whatever it ends up being, it will be consistent with what we tell you we are doing...Whatever it is that we do, we will describe in language that is consistent with the way we do things. We don't tend to train people in combat.”

The last comment was in reference to a press statement made earlier in the day by Reyes that under the Philippine definition of training, people train and then there is a test mission trainees don't graduate until they've gone on an actual operation that includes “an encounter in a hostile area. Some students die, and others graduate. That's our definition.”

Senior US defense officials say there were no substantive disagreements about how about 3,000 American troops would have been used to support their Philippine counterparts in patrols on land and sea in the lawless southern Philippines.

The Pentagon, intent on justifying the use of American troops on another front, had called it a “military operation,” the term used to describe combat.

But the Arroyo administration, put on the defensive by public uproar, wanted to call the effort an “exercise.”

Before Friday's decision was announced, a Philippine military official said privately that the best course would have been to deploy the US troops under the guise of an exercise and send them out on patrol without publicizing it. If the Americans saw action and suffered casualties, he said, “We could always cover up.”

But to the Americans, the term “exercise” was unacceptable, US officials said. Rumsfeld told reporters last Friday that American negotiators would be “perfectly comfortable from our standpoint,” calling the current plan a “joint combat operation.” He said there will be some joint “activity” between the two nations eventually, but Reyes told reporters in a separate news briefing that the two sides are still “groping for the exact term” in a “semantic” debate.

Reyes has complained about leaks from the Pentagon, but US defense officials and military analysts say the problem all along has been the inherent difficulty the Philippine government has in announcing that it needs help from its former colonizer. Mrs. Arroyo and Reyes failed to lay the groundwork with the Philippine public, and backtracked after strong opposition arose, analysts said.

The disagreement was an embarrassing setback to the Pentagon, which last week described the mission as virtually a done deal and was already loading 1,000 Marines onto ships in Okinawa and preparing 350 Special Operations Forces for jungle combat. A mission that Pentagon officials had said would be in full swing by next month is now on hold, as diplomats, generals and policy-makers from both countries scrambled to define a role for American troops that would satisfy each side.

Pentagon officials said it would be a combat operation, with American forces supporting Philippine-led missions.

But Philippine officials immediately balked at the American characterization, saying the Philippine Constitution prohibits foreign troops from carrying out combat missions. On one level, US officials said yesterday's impasse could be seen as a bump in the road to opening the newest front in the campaign against terrorists. Both countries pledged to work together to hunt down the remnants of Abu Sayyaf, a band of 250 guerrillas who have kidnapped and beheaded foreign tourists and missionaries, including several Americans.

But just as with the Bush administration's recent negotiations with another trusted ally, Turkey, over plans for war with Iraq, dealings with the Philippines have exposed undercurrents of political tension, lingering cultural sensitivities and the need for foreign leaders to show their public they can stand up to the American superpower.

“The rules of the road are still being worked out, because in the Philippines specially, they're very sensitive to this,” said Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, Republican, who heads the foreign relations committee and who met with Reyes after his Pentagon meeting. But the understanding breaks down when it comes to defining their precise role.

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye has called the mission an “exercise” that would “more or less” resemble the mission last year on Basilan island in Mindanao.

In an escalating war of words, Pentagon officials insisted their description of American forces in a supporting combat role was more accurate.

Rumsfeld, they said, did not want to mislead Congress or the American public about the riskiness of the new mission.

The US Defense chief, mindful of the diplomatic sensitivities at stake, pulled back today from characterizing the mission at all until operational details were ironed out.

But Philippine officials said they were committed to wiping out the Abu Sayyaf and acknowledged they needed American help.

Mrs. Arroyo last Saturday gave the Philippine military 90 days to eliminate the guerrilla group, and the head of the Armed Forces warned that commanders who failed would be replaced.

“The damage from Abu Sayyaf is not to the military,” Reyes said. “What is more damaging is the damage to economic climate, investments, tourism and trade. That's the reason we have to finish them off.”

The controversy had threatened to undermine the Arroyo administration, one of Bush's strongest supporters in Asia.

Some Philippine congressional opponents had warned that they would impeach Mrs. Arroyo if US combat troops landed in violation of the country's Constitution.

The opponents of the deployment said they were pleased by the decision but troubled that the Philippine government was not being honest about what the US troops would be doing.

“There is a level of deception on the Philippine government side that is bothersome,” Ilocos Norte Rep. Imee Marcos, an outspoken critic of the deal, said.

“I think the government was worried because one of the grounds for impeachment is a 'palpable' violation of the Constitution,” she noted.

Amid controversies on the conduct of the Balikatan exercises in Sulu, Malacañang also yesterday said joint training between Filipino and American troops to assist the local military in its fight against the Abu Sayyaf will push through.

It hinted this even as the military has yet to resolve questions on the legality and constitutionality of the exercises in the rebel stronghold.

“Washington has given an assurance that our constitutional, legal and other questions will be considered. The American troops will not enter without clear Terms of Reference,” Bunye said in a radio interview.

He belied reports that a forthcoming dialogue with Sulu residents who were reportedly up against the deployment of American troops in their province would defer the conduct of the war games.

Bunye explained Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and Sulu officials will only conduct talks with constituents to explain the nature and character of the Balikatan exercises.

“It is a fair statement to make that there will be no combat troops because it will be against our Constitution,” he noted.

But when asked why neither side could firm up an agreement on Balikatan 03-1 if the US agreed to respect the Constitution, Bunye only said the current talks are on “general terms.”

Also, he refused to answer questions as to why Rumsfeld did not categorically say US troops would not engage in combat during the Balikatan. (Tribune)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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