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U.S. troops may cause backlash in Philippines

By Washington Post
February 8, 2002

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines -- One recent morning, as U.S. troops were arriving in this garrison city to help Philippine soldiers fight a band of Islamic rebels known as the Abu Sayyaf, a spokesman for the group called a radio station here with a message for the Americans.

"For more than 300 years now, the Muslims in the Philippines have faced and fought numerous invaders, foreign and local," he said. "Praise be to Allah, (the invaders) were not fully successful in their version of the Crusades."

Speaking quickly over a crackling phone line, he recalled the brutal pacification campaigns that the U.S. military conducted in the Philippines a century ago, killing thousands of Muslims who resisted U.S. rule. He said this time, "you will be the losers."

There's growing concern among local officials, religious leaders and residents that the Abu Sayyaf will drag the U.S. military into a prolonged conflict and gain support by recasting its members as righteous Muslim warriors resisting foreign Christian trespassers.

U.S. and Philippine officials say the 650 U.S. soldiers arriving here won't engage in combat and will only train, advise and support their Philippine counterparts. But if the Abu Sayyaf manages to kill or capture even a few Americans, many people fear that the United States will respond with an all-out assault and provoke a backlash in these largely Muslim islands of the southern Philippines.

The people of these islands once sympathized with the Abu Sayyaf and its mission to establish an independent Islamic state. But support for the group fell sharply as the rebels became more interested in kidnapping foreigners and wealthy Filipinos for large ransoms.

"The arrival of U.S. troops plays into the anti-American sentiment of a lot of ideologues who otherwise would be against the Abu Sayyaf," said Glenda Gloria, a Philippine journalist and author of a book on Muslim insurgencies in the Philippines. "These are Muslims who have been very opposed to the Abu Sayyaf. But if the American soldiers get into combat, there's a risk the political landscape could change."

When U.S. soldiers venture into the jungles of Basilan island this month, they'll be chasing an enemy that has eluded the Philippine military for years, still enjoys some local support and sometimes hides in territories controlled by other Muslim rebels who have agreed to cease-fires with the government.

The Abu Sayyaf is believed to be operating only on two islands, Basilan and Jolo. U.S. troops will pursue only the Basilan group, which is holding hostage a U.S. missionary couple and a Philippine nurse.

Reports indicate the group has suffered heavy casualties and now numbers only 40 to 100 fighters.

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