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Meet the Moros. Filipino Muslims are willing to talk peace with the Christian `saboteurs' from Manila

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Also, Aquino was told that by talking directly with Misuari she could gain the upper hand over many of the local Muslim warlords and leftover Muslim leaders who supported Mr. Marcos.

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Rather than divide and conquer the Muslims, as Marcos did, she has helped to unify them -- so far as is possible -- under the MNLF. In fact, the night before meeting Misuari, Aquino met with some 80 politicians from Muslim areas and told them about her overture to the MNLF.

Finally, Aquino has consistently sought new ways of solving the country's old problems in her drive for national reconciliation -- and perhaps the most intractable problem has been the Muslim situation. ``I want to reach out to the Muslims,'' she told Misuari.

Since 1578, when the Spanish first tried to subdue the ``Moros'' in the Philippines, the Muslims have remained an independent people in spirit, if not in legal standing, despite 400 years of Christian missionizing, war, prejudice, and economic neglect. ``Any pretension over our homeland shall be met with the blood of our people,'' said Misuari last week.

At the same time, the Philippines' deeply religious Roman Catholic President cannot afford to upset the Christian majority, which still lives in a Spanish-influenced culture that looks down upon the Moros. (The very term was once derogatory, but later adopted by the Muslims.) Aquino, for instance, balanced her trip to the Muslim area by meeting Misuari in a Catholic monastery.

``Christian Filipinos think Muslims run amok, that they are unstoppable, that a good Moro is a dead Moro,'' says Agapito Aquino. ``But the first step for us is to embrace their culture.'' Although the President is worried about any Christian backlash, he says, ``she thinks she can contain it.''

Misuari, too, has to watch over his shoulder. The three main ethnic groups of Muslims -- Tausug, Maranao, and Maguindanao -- are not always united in Islamic brotherhood, despite common oppression in the past. His MNLF is Tausug-dominated. And after a decade of little fighting, Misuari's guerrilla force is divided, according to his aides, between young radicals who want total independence and older commanders who are tired of fighting and prefer some sort of autonomy.

[Members of a Muslim faction excluded from last week's Misuari-Aquino talks yesterday attacked a wedding at a Catholic church in Salvador on Mindanao Island, Reuters reported. The rebels killed 10 people.]

With less support from Islamic nations, Misuari comes to the bargaining table with weaker ICO backup than in 1976, when he signed the Tripoli Agreement with Marcos. (It granted autonomy, but was never fulfilled.) ``The ICO has a limited mandate,'' says a Misuari aide. ``We must find support from individual countries.''

The nuts and bolts of any agreement depend on measuring the demographics of Christians and Muslims in the southern provinces and spelling out precise language on political, legal, religious, and military autonomy. The problem could prove as difficult as the Catholic-Protestant dilemma in Northern Ireland.

Key to any talks is how well Misuari and Aquino get along. On that score, the Sept. 5 meeting was not a good start. Rather than stay for a prepared lunch, Aquino left quickly. ``They were both stubborn,'' says Agapito Aquino, the government's chief negotiator. ``But we can come up with some solution as long as we allow Misuari to keep his honor.''