US troops rile Filipino separatists

US troops deployed this week to fight Abu Sayyaf may provoke a broader militant Muslim backlash.

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

Sharif Julabi, regional chairman of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), sits beneath a poster listing the 99 names of Allah and explains why the expansion of the Bush Administration's war on terror to the southern Philippines could backfire.

"The claim is that [the US is] going after the Abu Sayyaf,'' says Mr. Julabi, referring to a 60 member Muslim kidnap-for-ransom gang that the US is helping to pursue on Basilan island, "But ... we think they're looking for a justification to go to war with us."

Zamboanga City on Basilan, the staging ground for the US operation, is shared by other wings of the MILF who are fearful of the US operation as well. It is shared by farmers, who worry about being caught in the cross fire; and it is shared by leaders of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a separatist group that signed a peace agreement with the Philippines five years ago but still has 20,000 armed men.

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Local leaders warn it's a situation that, if handled badly, could inflame simmering Muslim resentment against the center and create a fresh generation of Muslim radicals who harbor a grudge against the US. "This could backfire,'' says Narimin Hussin, a former MNLF guerilla who now leads a seaweed-growing cooperative on Basilan. "If people get killed, their families will want revenge."

Fifty US special forces advisers arrived on Basilan over the weekend, soon to be joined by 110 more. Basilan is America's first non-Afghan deployment to a combat zone since the war began, and US and Philippine commanders are hoping that it will lead to the swift dismantling of the Abu Sayyaf.

Yesterday, a firefight broke out between Philippine soldiers and the Abu Sayyaf about four miles from where US forces are bivouacked, and over the past week at least 30 armed insurgents have been killed on Basilan and neighboring islands, 20 of whom were killed by mortar fire and attack helicopters on Jolo island, Philippines military officials say.

Though officially described as a six-month training exercise, US soldiers will be joining some of the 6,000 Filipino soldiers on the ground in combat patrols on Basilan, a Los Angeles-sized island home to about 300,000 people, 85 percent of whom are Muslim.

"It's a training mission with the Abu Sayyaf as the live target,'' explains Lt. Col. Danilo Servando of the Philippines military's Southern Command in Zamboanga City. "US soldiers are not to engage in combat, but they are allowed to defend themselves."

Ben Loong, a Muslim businessman and community leader in Zamboanga, worries about a spiral of violence. "The military approach is not a solution. You can kill all of the Abu Sayyaf, but twice as many will take their place if the people feel there is still injustice."

In addition to its 60-odd members on Basilan, the group has about 150 more members operating in the neighboring Sulu archipelago. Philippine intelligence agents say members of the group move freely back and forth between islands, and that they no longer know where Martin and Gracia Burnham, an American missionary couple the group kidnapped eight months ago, are being held.

The Burnhams are one of the reasons that the US is so interested in the Abu Sayyaf. The other is because its original leadership had ties to Al Qaeda.

"We are there only to help pursue the Abu Sayyaf, and will confine our activities to Basilan," says a US official, pointing out that Muslims have been among the chief victims of the Abu Sayyaf. "The objective is to help the Philippines fight terrorism."

But even the best of intentions can hit a snag in the tortured politics of the southern Philippines, where many farmers go armed for their protection, half a dozen rebel and bandit groups occupy overlapping territories, and there is no consensus within the government about what should be done.

While the Abu Sayyaf aren't popular, the MILF are widely viewed as fighting a legitimate struggle for the political and economic rights of the region's Muslims, who make up about 8 percent of the Philippine population. The Spanish called them Moros after the Muslim Moors of North Africa.

"Large numbers of Muslims support them,'' says Mr. Loong. "The Muslim apprehension is that the Abu Sayyaf will flee, soldiers will encounter the MILF instead, and a much bigger conflict will erupt."

Philippine military commanders have said there's little chance of making mistakes: "The other armed groups have been keeping out of the way, so any contacts will be made only with the Abu Sayyaf," says Lt. Col. Reynato Padua, the commanding officer of Camp Cabunbata, a Philippine Scout Ranger camp on Basilan that will soon host US trainers.

But the lines between counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency are already becoming blurred. Philippine police say an alleged Al Qaeda agent, the Indonesian Fathur Roman Al-Ghozi they have in custody, helped the MILF conduct bombings in Manila two years ago. Philippine Army officials say the MILF is aiding the Abu Sayyaf on Basilan.

"The MILF harbor the Abu Sayyaf on Basilan; they provide them a base of operations,'' says Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan, the Armed Forces spokesman nearby. "So action should be taken."

The scholarly Mr. Julabi, who is responsible for the MILF troops in southern Mindanao and in the smaller islands to the south, calls the military's claims "fabrications to destroy our reputation. I don't deny that some of our cadres received training in Afghanistan in the past. But that was with the CIA!"

Some Muslim leaders here wanted the US to make Muslims a state when the Philippines won its independence, and Julabi says his organization is still interested. "Make us a state, like Hawaii," he says.

Failing that, the MILF would like a referendum on independence or autonomy within the Philippines similar to the UN-sponsored vote in 1999 that led to East Timor's independence from Indonesia. "The US supported the East Timor referendum, but not us. The only difference I can see between the two situations is that they are Catholics, and we're not."

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