[an error occurred while processing this directive]
MANILA, Philippines -- Philippine leaders battled Friday to quell growing political turmoil triggered by Washington's disclosure that hundreds of U.S. special operations troops are on the way to fight alongside the Philippine military against ruthless Abu Sayyaf rebels.
Unlike previous arrangements in which U.S. troops played advisory roles out of the line of fire, American troops this time will join Philippine soldiers in direct combat on southern Jolo island, U.S. defense officials said.
One thousand U.S. Marines will be stationed off the jungle island, ready to provide military and logistical support in the campaign against the al-Qaida-linked terror group.
Street protests, likely led by the vice president, and a legal challenge seem certain in this former American colony, where the Supreme Court already had ruled that U.S. troops can shoot only in self-defense and the constitution prohibits the presence of foreign military facilities and troops unless covered by treaty.
Philippine officials chose their words carefully Friday when asked about the reports from Washington.
"I am categorically saying that anything that they say that contradicts the constitution and the laws will not materialize," Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said.
Pressed on whether it was possible for U.S. troops to have combat roles in the country, he replied, "That is a matter for lawyers to decide."
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did not comment, but said last year that she believed a combat role for U.S. troops in the Philippines was legal.
In 2002, protesters gathered almost daily outside the U.S. Embassy while American troops conducted six months of counterterrorism training with the Philippine military near a southern combat zone.
The underfunded, underequipped Philippine military claimed it decimated the Muslim extremist group on Basilan island during the massive U.S.-supported offensive coinciding with that training.
But the military recently conceded it underestimated the remaining strength of the Abu Sayyaf, whose campaign of mass kidnappings and hostage killings since 2000 has scared away foreign tourists and investment.
The Abu Sayyaf killed 18 of the 102 hostages it took in a yearlong kidnapping spree that began in May 2001. Most were hacked to death or beheaded, including Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif.
Another American hostage, Martin Burnham, of Wichita, Kan., was killed during a rescue attempt last year. His wife, Gracia, survived.
Allowing the Americans to expand their mission is an apparent indication that Arroyo is ready for extreme measures to rid the country of the Abu Sayyaf.
Pentagon officials say they have information indicating that a link between the Abu Sayyaf and the al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremist network Jemaah Islamiyah of Indonesia may be stronger than earlier believed.
Also, Manila expelled an Iraqi diplomat last week, saying an Abu Sayyaf member called him shortly after an October bombing whose victims included a U.S. Green Beret.
The Philippine military estimates that 208 Abu Sayyaf guerrillas are on Jolo, with 1,070 allies belonging to a large faction of the Moro National Liberation Front, a Muslim separatist group that abandoned a 1996 peace accord.
This week alone, that group was accused of massacring 14 villagers and setting off a pair of bombs that killed two.
Key Abu Sayyaf leaders from Basilan also are believed to have fled to Jolo, one of the country's poorest, most violent islands.
U.S. officials said Thursday that about 350 U.S. special operations forces, mostly Army Green Berets, will be involved in the offensive in the Sulu Archipelago, with much of the effort focused on Jolo.
They will be supported by about 400 U.S. troops based 70 miles away in Zamboanga city and about 1,000 Marines aboard Navy ships available to respond quickly with air power, logistics help and medical aid.
Reyes said "ongoing discussions" were continuing on details of the exercise, which is expected to start in a few weeks and run through November. The defense minister said he will fly to Washington on Sunday for previously scheduled talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on "defense- and security-related issues of mutual interest."