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Life during Wartime
Risky business in Mindanao

MAKING THE CLAIM that North Korea, Iraq, and Iran are an "axis of evil," Dubya signaled his intent to broaden the war during a slim-on-facts, long-on-posturing State of the Union address Jan. 29. (The allusion to the German-Italian-Japanese alliance of WWII is off base, by the way: those three countries were waging a war together, while the trio of dictatorial states named by Bush all despise one another.)

U.S. special forces troops have already landed in the Philippines. Late last month the Defense Department dispatched 650 soldiers to that country to help the Filipino army extinguish the kidnap-happy Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. The joint forces are operating in the Mindanao region, an impoverished area of five million people that's been mired in a Muslim-led war of secession since the 1970s. Bay Area journalists Rene Ciria-Cruz and Rick Rocamora, both Filipino Americans, have covered the conflict as stringers for the (old) San Francisco Examiner, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and other publications. They talked to us about the difficulties American troops may face in the dense jungles and far-flung islands of Mindanao.

The area, Ciria-Cruz said, "is almost like a no-man's-land. Only people who live there are safe, and even they aren't sometimes." It's a treacherous, Vietnam-like territory, and the troops will have to go village to village and island to island if they want to corner the guerrillas – in other words, carpet bombing isn't going to work. Indiscriminate air strikes will only succeed in further alienating the already disenfranchised local population.

And – more shades of Vietnam here – it will be very hard to separate the villagers from the enemy. "The Abu Sayyaf can blend in easily everywhere there," Rocamora said. "There's no way to distinguish an Abu Sayyaf from an ordinary citizen."

A microscopic splinter group of 200 to 2,000 fighters, the Abu Sayyaf broke off from the region's two main guerrilla forces, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, in 1991.

Ties between the Abu Sayyaf and Osama bin Laden apparently go back to the early 1990s, when an Abu Sayyaf leader teamed up with al-Qaeda agent Ramsey Yusef in a scheme to blow up the pope when the pontiff visited Manila. The plan went awry when the bomb blew up hours early, atomizing a Manila hotel room. One of bin Laden's brothers allegedly funded the aborted mission. Yusef is now in prison for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Today, however, the Abu Sayyaf, which took Berkeley native Jeffrey Schilling hostage in 2000, seems to have distanced itself from bin Laden, evolving instead into a nonreligious criminal outfit. "Even the mainstream media says it's not really clear if the links to al-Qaeda are still alive. Because the Abu Sayyaf has just become a renegade bandit group, it's not ideologically driven, it's really just a pillage-and-plunder operation," explains Ciria-Cruz, an editor at Pacific News Service and Filipinas magazine.

The Abu Sayyaf is one of many gangs that haunt Mindanao. "If you're going after the Abu Sayyaf, that's not the only group you're going to run into," Ciria-Cruz told us. "There's also the Pentagon gang, which just kidnapped an Italian priest. There are other gangs. Sometimes when they have operations, they link up. It's not a simple thing of going after one group."

For American G.I.s this is a very risky mission. So far the 7,000 Filipino troops sent to Mindanao have failed to neutralize the Abu Sayyaf, and government forces have taken heavy casualties, losing more than 43 soldiers in just one operation.

In the Philippines, according to polls, public opinion about the joint operations is split, and demonstrators opposed to U.S. intervention clashed with riot police outside the American embassy in Manila Feb. 1. But the message boards of Inquirer.net, an English-language Filipino news site, tell a different story. Posters last week welcomed the American troops. "We should be grateful for what they are going to do," one wrote. "It's about time the Philippines came out and asked for help from the United States to fight the rebels," another wrote.

Ciria-Cruz is skeptical of Uncle Sam's motives: he can see the Pentagon using Mindanao's deep-water harbors as a launching point to stage antiterrorist missions throughout Southeast Asia – or to attack North Korea. Rocamora concurs: "Mindanao could become a critical area for the U.S." (A.C. Thompson)


E-mail A.C. Thompson at ac_thompson@sfbg.com