MALACANANG, September 18, 2003  (STAR)  By Marichu Villanueva  - US President George W. Bush will receive a "rousing" welcome when he visits Manila next month as most Filipinos support the US-led global war on terrorism, President Arroyo said yesterday.

"Our strategic partnership with the United States in fighting terrorism and poverty has the overwhelming support of the majority of our people. The surveys reflect this unequivocally," Mrs. Arroyo said in a statement issued by Malacañang yesterday.

"I look forward to a warm, rousing welcome for President Bush by the Filipino people."

She issued the statement as the latest joint military exercises between the two countries are expected to start today in Ternate, Cavite. About 1,500 US troops and 600 Philippine soldiers are participating in the Amphibious Ready Group Exercises or ARGEX 03-1.

Three ships of the US Amphibious Ready Group — the flagship USS Essex, the Fort McHenry and Harper’s Ferry — arrived Sunday in Subic Bay for ARGEX 03-1 and will return to Okinawa, Japan on Sept. 21 when the war games are over.

US military officials at the war games emphasized that ARGEX has nothing to do with the forthcoming visit in Manila of US President George W. Bush.

Col. Roy Arnold, commander of the 31st US Marine Expeditionary Unit that is participating in the war games, said ARGEX is meant merely to "increase our interoperability" with Philippine forces "and demonstrate solidarity between our two governments" in maintaining peace and order in the Asia-Pacific region.

US military officials said their ships would leave the Philippines long before Bush’s visit next month.

Mrs. Arroyo underscored Bush’s concern for issues she brought to his attention — such as the Philippine ban on US troops engaging in combat against the Abu Sayyaf — during her state visit to the United States last May.

"He is very sensitive to our national interest and constitutional prerogatives in the conduct of joint military training exercises," she said.

"President Bush has gone out of his way to help our veterans get more benefits, and in facilitating Filipinos’ remittances to the Philippines."

Mrs. Arroyo is expected to discuss security, trade and other issues with Bush during their scheduled meeting at Malacañang.

The Philippines and the United States have forged a "genuinely mutual relationship that transcends the colonial ties of the past," Mrs. Arroyo said, referring to the nearly 50 years of US rule in the Philippines from 1898 to 1946.

Mrs. Arroyo earlier said Bush’s Oct. 18 visit will go "beyond mere concerns over terrorism" as she and Bush reaffirm their "commitments to key programs that will push forward political and economic security" in the region.

Mrs. Arroyo’s public approval ratings remained steady in past opinion polls, indicating that the majority of Filipinos supported her decision to back the US-led campaign on terrorism.

Attacks by Muslim rebels on civilian targets in Mindanao helped boost public backing for the US campaign on terror.

Early this year, Mrs. Arroyo took a political gamble when she supported the unilateral US invasion of Iraq and ran into domestic criticism.

Bush’s eight-hour stopover in Manila is largely seen as a gesture of thanks to Mrs. Arroyo for her staunch support in the US-led war on terror.

Mrs. Arroyo said Filipinos will "continue to benefit immensely — in terms of jobs, livelihood opportunities and public safety — from our strategic relationship with the United States."

One region that stands to benefit from US assistance is Mindanao if the government finalizes a peace settlement with the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Earlier, Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said Bush would likely seek a "post-conflict" US role once a peace deal is concluded.

Bush would likely press for a strong role in the development of Mindanao, which has been wracked by secessionist violence for more than three decades, Bunye said.

Washington is helping mediate Malaysian-brokered peace talks with the MILF and has vowed to provide funding for development in Mindanao, the Philippines’ poorest region.

Manila largely blames poverty for the Muslim insurgency.

Early this year, the Arroyo administration was poised to ask Washington to brand the MILF as a terrorist organization following attacks on civilians in the south.

In June, the MILF publicly renounced terrorism, staving off the prospect of US action on their sources of funding and weapons.

The 12,500-member MILF has been waging a campaign to set up an Islamic state in Mindanao, home of the Philippines’ Muslim minority.

Preparations for Bush’s visit went into high gear Monday when an advance American security team inspected Malacañang as well as the House of Representatives to assess security needs.

Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. has invited Bush to address a joint session of Congress. It is not yet certain if the address will push through.

Bush’s visit was thrown into doubt in July by the embarrassing escape of Indonesian Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, — a self-confessed bomb expert of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group — from Camp Crame.

Mrs. Arroyo vowed tight security for Bush to foil any possible terrorist attack.

The military has stepped up the manhunt for Al-Ghozi, who is believed to be hiding in Mindanao. Gen. Narciso Abaya, armed forces chief, was optimistic that he would be recaptured soon.

"It seems that the reports point to the boundary of Zamboanga City and Sibugay province," he said, without elaborating.

Al-Ghozi was reportedly sighted in Central Mindanao accompanied by heavily armed men. The military has sent four army battalions to track down the fugitive.

Troops killed a man who resembled Al-Ghozi in a recent clash in Sultan Kudarat province. The man turned out to be an escaped convict.

Bush’s visit is expected to whip up a series of protests by leftist groups leery of any US influence.

Spain ruled the Philippines for 300 years until 1898 when it got into a war with the United States.

Washington’s decision to ignore Filipino aspirations for independence and colonize the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, however, led to a three-year brutal war with Filipino revolutionaries who had rebelled against Spanish rule. The Philippines became independent in 1946 but US influence remained strong. –With Jaime Laude

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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