Plans the Pentagon announced last week to send 3,000 troops to the Philippines to help in efforts to eradicate the Abu Sayyaf group of Islamic militants are facing a sharp challenge this week as critics point out that the Philippine constitution bars foreign troops from fighting on its territory.

After a deal had apparently been reached last week, presidential spokesperson Ignacio Bunye said on Feb. 23 that no final agreement had been reached with the Bush administration and that U.S. troops would not be permitted to engage in combat in his country. On the same day, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes flew to the U.S. for meetings with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

According to the agreement, some 750 ground troops including 350 special operations forces were to conduct or help with combat patrols in the jungles of Sulu province. On two ships offshore were to be 1,000 Marines armed with Cobra attack helicopters and Harrier AV-8B attack planes. The U.S. forces would be commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Weber, commander of the 3rd Marine Division based on Okinawa.

Another 1,300 U.S. troops are already stationed in the Philippines to help train the country’s armed forces, while the U.S. Navy flies regular reconnaissance missions over the Sulu Archipelago to provide intelligence support to U.S. and Philippine forces in the area.

Popular opposition to the U.S. military role is strong. In 1991 public anger – combined with damage to Clark Air Base from the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo – forced the government to refuse to let the Pentagon continue to station troops there and at Subic Bay Naval Station.

Critics of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo charge that the government worked out a secret deal to allow U.S. soldiers to engage in combat, but denied the agreement after it was made public.

At the same time, the Bush administration is stepping up its military involvement in Colombia. This year Arauca province, on the border with Venezuela, will become the focus of a $470 million a year Pentagon program to strengthen Colombia’s military, emphasizing counterinsurgency techniques rather than the anti drug efforts the U.S. has concentrated on in the past. Ostensibly, the effort is to protect an oil pipeline run jointly by the Colombian government, and Los Angeles based Occidental Petroleum, but the first unit to be trained is a Colombian counterinsurgency force.

U.S. officials say at least five UN-1H Huey II helicopters, funded under the $1.3 billion “Plan Colombia” aid package, will be shifted from anti-drug to counterinsurgency activities. The five ‘copters will enable a 40-member platoon to be moved at one time to target insurgents; the program envisions purchase of as many as 10 new helicopters, associated equipment, and training for Colombian forces. Currently there are about 500 U.S. military “advisors” in the country. Colombia holds the worst human rights record for trade unionists, with hundreds murdered and kidnapped each year by mainly right-wing paramilitaries who operate openly with impunity.

The author can be reached at cpusainternat@mindspring.com

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