When US troops arrived in the southern islands in December 2001, a decade after closing its bases in the Philippines, critics assailed the move. They predicted a return of permanent US camps in its former colony, and a repeat of the sleazy bars and clubs still surrounding its former bases near Manila.
More alarming to US ears were dire warnings of resistance from Muslims whose island communities were to be rid of militants by US-assisted Philippine troops. Observers warned that the foreign presence could inflame the situation, as well as revive memories of a bloody US military campaign in the early 1900s to subdue Muslim-inhabited Mindanao.
Today, these warnings mostly ring false. About 450 US soldiers are still here, based inside Philippine military command centers in Zamboanga and the nearby island of Jolo. But the expected nightlife boom hasn't happened. Nor have militants taken the fight to the foreigners deployed here, though a US serviceman died in a bomb attack on a restaurant in 2002.
US officers say their small footprint in Mindanao, as well as a focus on joint development projects and counterinsurgency training of the Philippine Army, have smoothed their path. But further challenges lie ahead as US troop, and their Philippine counterparts who are notorious for human rights abuses, continue pursuing Muslim insurgent cells on the islands.
One measure of the US approach can be found on Basilan, where US troops first deployed in 2002. At the time, the extremist group Abu Sayyaf had turned the island, a 30-minute ferry ride from Zamboanga, into a no-go zone with a string of abductions, bombings, and beheadings.
Commander Steve Kelley, a naval engineering reservist, says it was a tough mission. "It wasn't a warm welcome," he recalls. But humanitarian projects, including the construction of an 80- kilometer (50-mile) coastal road and a series of mobile clinics, won residents over. "It was a huge turnaround," he says. Local officials say the improved security has restored normalcy.
Muchtar Muarip, a contractor who worked on the US-funded road, says that the civil outreach convinced some Muslims of their benign intentions. "The US troops promoted development projects that awakened the mind of people in Basilan. It showed that if other people were concerned [about them], they should be concerned," he says.
Still, suspicions die hard.
Mr. Muarip says that his brother, a Muslim who favors adoption of sharia Islamic law in Mindanao, is skeptical of US largesse and rejects the deployment in the Philippines. Other critics say that the arrival of US troops, whatever their intentions, stirs anxiety among Muslims.
"The face of the US in our area is the face of an American soldier, so any good that they do is neutralized by fear of the American military," says Amina Rasul, co-founder of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy and scion of a prominent royal family here.
National hackles were also raised by a highly publicized trial of a US marine convicted on Dec. 4 of raping a Philippine woman in 2005. After Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith was sentenced to 40 years in prison, a row erupted over US insistence that he remain in their custody pending an appeal. When the court balked, the embassy vowed to cancel a joint military exercise. Ultimately, the Philippines caved; the exercise begins this week.
Lawyers for the victim protested the handover, and the blunt wielding of US leverage, such as military aid that has totaled more than $300 million since 2002. US officials argue, however, that their request was explicitly ensured in a treaty.
While US forces reaped a degree of goodwill in Basilan through their civil-outreach programs, Jolo may prove more testing. Denied sanctuary on Basilan, Abu Sayyaf has since regrouped on this island, where a US-backed Philippine military offensive against the group is now under way. Also on the run in Jolo are Indonesian militants whom US officials have linked to the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings. The jungle-clad hills hold bitter memories of a US occupation in 1898 that met fierce resistance for more than a decade.
Zain Jali, a spiritual adviser to an insurgent group that signed a 1996 peace deal, says distrust of the Philippine Army and its US advisers runs deep. "In the mind of the people, Americans are their enemy, their historical enemy," he warns.
US officers deployed on Jolo say such attitudes appear to be softening, as humanitarian programs with the Philippine Army and civilian-aid projects bear fruit. USAID has funneled $300 million into Mindanao since 1996.