U.S. troops may fight in Philippines
Agreement could expand current U.S. role
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Some 350 U.S. special operations troops will join with the Philippine military in an open-ended mission to "disrupt and defeat" the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf rebel movement as soon as next month, Pentagon officials told CNN Thursday.
It would mark the first time in the war on terror that U.S. forces have assumed an active offensive role in the Philippines.
"This will be a no-holds-barred effort," said one Pentagon official familiar with the planning. "This is not an exercise."
But a spokesman for Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said any such plans have "not been finalized yet." This official said the government would have to change its constitution, which does not allow U.S. troops to go into combat in the Philippines.
The Philippine official did say Reyes is going to the U.S. Pacific Command this weekend for meetings on the possible operation.
Pentagon officials said that while the Philippine government has not officially announced the operation, they said their understanding is that it's a "done deal."
Abu Sayyaf was founded in 1998 when it splintered from another Muslim group that has been fighting for an independent state in the Philippines since the early 1990s. The U.S. State Department considers Abu Sayyaf the most violent of the Muslim groups in the Philippines.
In May 2001, after a series of Abu Sayyaf kidnappings that started in April 2000, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared "all-out war" against the group.
Several terrorist groups currently operate in the Philippines, where there have been a series of deadly bombings, kidnappings and other attacks against both government and civilian targets.
An October 2 incident blamed on Abu Sayyaf killed three people, including a U.S. Green Beret, in the port city of Zamboanga.
Pentagon officials say investigations following some of those attacks have turned up information indicating there may be a stronger link than earlier believed between the Abu Sayyaf and the Jemaah Islamiyah of Indonesia. Jemaah Islamiyah has connections to al Qaeda, officials said.
A total of 1,750 U.S. troops could be used in the region and they may deploy within days, according to sources. In addition to the special operations troops, about 400 support troops will be based at Zamboanga at a Philippine military base and an additional 1,000 Marines will be based offshore as a quick reaction force.
The Marines would live aboard two amphibious assault ships: the USS Essex and the USS Ft. McHenry, which are based in Okinawa, Japan.
A month of talks between the United States and the Philippine government has centered on sending U.S. Special Forces to Jolo as advisers and for possible joint operations -- including combat -- against the rebels, two officials said earlier this week.
The agreement will put U.S. forces back into the Philippines in a combined operational role, putting the troops side by side with Filipino troops during patrols, which could end up in combat situations.
This would be the first time the Philippine government has allowed U.S. troops to operate in combat roles in the jungle terrain.
Last year, about 1,200 U.S. military trainers and support crews conducted a six-month training operation in which U.S. troops advised Philippine troops. During that time the Philippine troops, under the watch of U.S. troops, routed out most of the Abu Sayyaf rebels from the southern Philippine island of Basilan.
Currently there are more than 1,300 U.S. troops in the Philippines conducting training exercises or providing security assistance, Pentagon officials said.
The Philippine military early this month announced it had underestimated by nearly 50 percent the number of Abu Sayyaf rebels and warned it would take a long time before they are wiped out.
A Department of National Defense report submitted to the Philippine Congress late last year placed their strength at 250, down from 800 in 2001.
But Chief of Staff Gen. Dionisio Santiago acknowledged February 5 that a recheck of military documents and figures showed a number closer to 500 -- most on the impoverished island of Jolo.