MANILA, Philippines - Amid growing criticism that the Philippine government would be acting illegally if it let U.S. troops engage in combat here, a top Muslim leader warned yesterday that the planned deployment could trigger an anti-American backlash.
"I am afraid this might be fraught with danger," said Parouk Hussin, governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. "People are very poor, but everyone owns a gun."
Pentagon officials said last week that the United States will send 3,000 troops to the Philippines to help hunt down members of the Abu Sayyaf, a ruthless gang of kidnappers who call themselves Islamic militants.
Despite the Pentagon announcement, the office of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo continued to maintain yesterday that U.S. troops would serve only as trainers for Philippine soldiers.
"The bottom line here is that there will be no aggressive combat role for American troops," said presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye. He said that the news reports from the Pentagon, attributed to unnamed officials, were erroneous.
The Philippine constitution forbids foreign troops to engage in combat in the Philippines. Critics of the government charge that Arroyo negotiated a secret deal with the United States in violation of the law.
Some of Arroyo's critics in Congress accused administration officials of "treason" for negotiating the agreement. Arroyo has been uncharacteristically quiet since the furor erupted three days ago.
"It's just been sneaked through like a thief in the night," said a former presidential aide who asked not to be identified. "It's been done surreptitiously, and it's even being denied by the people who have done it. It's amazing."
The United States has designated the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist group. The group's leadership had links in the mid-1990s to Osama bin Laden, but it is unclear whether any connection still exists.
The group is best known for the spectacular kidnapping of foreigners from tourist resorts.
In 2001, the group kidnapped three Americans, Guillermo Sobero of California and Kansas missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham. Sobero was beheaded soon after the kidnapping, but the Burnhams were held in the jungle of Basilan island for more than a year. A raid by Philippine troops freed Gracia Burnham but resulted in her husband's death.
The Abu Sayyaf is blamed for kidnapping more than 100 people and killing at least 20.
Last year, the United States sent troops to Basilan to train Philippine soldiers and carry out public works, such as building roads and providing health care. The U.S. presence is credited with helping to drive the Abu Sayyaf from Basilan.
Hundreds of Abu Sayyaf members are now on the southern island of Jolo, their stronghold. The deployment announced by the Pentagon would include sending Special Forces to the island.
Yesterday, the Philippine military announced that it had recovered the body of the Abu Sayyaf's third-ranking leader, Mujib Susukan, wounded in a gunbattle with soldiers last week. The United States had offered a reward of $100,000 for his capture or death.
Some people fear that sending U.S. troops to the volatile Sulu province could provoke a strong anti-American reaction and prompt various Islamic militant factions to band together to fight a common enemy.
The predominantly Islamic region is one of the poorest in the Philippines, and many disputes are resolved by violence. Authorities estimate that there are 30,000 guns on Jolo alone.
The Abu Sayyaf is not the only group fighting the government. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a much larger force that seeks independence for the southern Philippines, has been battling troops on the island of Mindanao.
Richard C. Paddock writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.