WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has approved a plan to send Americans on jungle patrol with Philippine soldiers who are fighting Islamic rebels, defense officials said Wednesday.
While agreeing to the expansion of a counter-terror training program, the military rejected the idea of letting Americans stay beyond July, senior officials said on condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon is notifying Congress and working out details with the Philippines government, which is expected to give its approval, two defense officials said.
The expanded program could put U.S. military advisers and trainers at greater risk of being drawn into combat, a prospect that could bring political problems for the Philippine government since national law prohibits foreigners from engaging in combat there.
It also has raised concern that Americans might be drawn into deeper involvement because the U.S. role in the Vietnam War also started with advisers.
Under an agreement between the two governments early this year, some 1,200 Americans are to be in the Philippines through July 31 to train, advise and equip local forces fighting the guerrillas.
Outside of Afghanistan, it is the largest U.S. military deployment in the war against terrorism.
On Monday, U.S. Marines and Filipino soldiers guarding a road construction site exchanged heavy gunfire with 10 suspected rebels on Basilan -- the first time Americans had seen hostile action in the five months since they arrived.
The training so far has been confined to the battalion level -- that is, the Americans work at headquarters and remain behind when Filipinos patrol.
Under the new plan, U.S. troops would advise and train some 20 to 25 Filipino units at the smaller, company level, and be allowed on patrol, Pentagon officials said.
Sticking with plan
But rather than extend the program beyond the approved six months -- as has been debated in recent weeks -- the Pentagon will begin drawing down U.S. troops at the originally planned time, the officials said.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld had for weeks been studying recommendations by commanders that said moving with the smaller units would allow Americans to give better advice. It would let them observe Filipinos in field situations -- and advise them on the spot.
The Americans include 160 military advisers on the island of Basilan, where the rebels have been based. There also are trainers, several hundred intelligence and logistical support personnel and about 300 Navy engineers who are improving an airplane runway, a causeway and other infrastructure.
Rumsfeld approved the plan to expand the program in recent days and President Bush agreed, officials said Wednesday.
The situation in the Philippines also has changed in that the rebels no longer are holding missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham of Kansas. A rescue attempt by Filipino troops freed Mrs. Burnham but left her husband and Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap dead.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr Jeff Davis declined to comment on any new plans for the counter-training program but acknowledged officials are working "to refashion" it.
"Working with our Philippine allies, we are breaking the vicious cycle of terrorist violence that has been causing poverty and lack of government services, which in turn gives terrorists more fertile ground," Davis said.
He said the number of terrorists on Basilan has been cut by hundreds, some displaced residents have begun returning home and U.S. humanitarian assistance has won public support for the fight against rebels.
"On the other side of the coin ... the job is not finished," Davis said.
Officials said it would take a few months to draw down U.S. troops there and that the vast majority would come home, leaving only some liaison officers. But the United States has been involved in smaller scale counter-terror training in the Philippines for a decade and American troops are sure to be sent back for other programs.
Associated Press Military Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.