WASHINGTON, October 25, 2004 (STAR) By Jose Katigbak STAR Washington bureau — Despite recent strains in bilateral relations following the Arroyo administration’s pullout of Filipino troops from Iraq, the US Senate appropriations committee has voted to nearly double foreign military financing (FMF) assistance to the Philippines for fiscal year 2005.

The Bush administration has requested that the FMF be raised from $30 million to $55 million, with emphasis on marine upgrade and counter-terror requirements.

In a report of its meeting, the committee noted the interest of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to upgrade its coastal, air and marine capabilities, and asked the State and Defense Departments to consult with Manila on its future defense needs.

The committee also deliberated on the needs of the AFP, one of the most poorly equipped in the region in the light of its long-delayed modernization, to bolster its war against terror in a business-as-usual manner despite earlier criticism by senior Bush administration members of the pullout of Filipino troops from Iraq.

In July, President Arroyo withdrew the 51-member Philippine humanitarian contingent from Iraq a month ahead of schedule over the objections of the US and other coalition allies to meet the demands of Iraqi militants who held Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz hostage.

"Whatever disagreements we may have in Iraq do not affect our military relationship," said Maj. Gen. Delfin Lorenzana, defense attaché at the Philippine embassy here.

For the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2005, the Bush administration has asked the US Congress for a total of $80 million in military assistance for the Philippines, up from $64.99 million in 2004.

The appropriations are broken down as follows: $45 million for defense reform, $30 million in foreign military financing assistance, $3 million for military educational training, and $2 million for law enforcement.

The Senate appropriations committee tacked in an extra $25 million in FMF assistance following strong lobbying by the Philippine embassy.

The committee said it was alarmed at terrorist activity in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, and called for a coordinated strategy to undermine the ability of terrorists to gain a foothold in Muslim communities in the region.

It said that, in addition to counterterrorism assistance, development aid such as basic education, health care and support for civil society and democratic political parties can be an effective bulwark against extremism — if appropriately targeted and adequately funded.

Members of the Senate and House conference committees will be meeting after the Nov. 2 elections to hammer out differences in their respective bills.

Relatedly, a multimillion-dollar aid package is also on the pipeline for Mindanao as soon as a peace agreement is signed by Manila and Muslim secessionist guerrillas.

Earlier this month, suspected members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were arrested, preempting an alleged plan to bomb the US embassy in Manila.

But the MILF claimed the arrests were merely a smokescreen to deflect public attention from an ongoing probe on military corruption.

President George W. Bush is considered a close ally of the Arroyo government, and in a presidential debate with his rival Sen. John Kerry, even mentioned the Philippines as one of the countries Washington is helping in the war on terror.

Kerry himself has been courting the vote of Filipino veterans of the Pacific war, promising them parity of benefits with their US counterparts if he is elected.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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