PATIKUL, Philippines — Philippine Marine Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban strides through a large roadside field, gesturing to the location where volunteers are spending their Sunday building homes for the homeless.
"This was once a battleground," he says. "It was abnormal for you to see people gathering like this. But now it's normal."
Lush with palm trees and jungle greenery, Patikul municipality used to be one of the most dangerous addresses on Jolo island, a favorite ambush point for Moro Islamic Liberation Front insurgents and a haunt for the al Qaida linked Abu Sayyaf Group.
Much of the southern Philippines, however, remains violent. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which seeks an autonomous Muslim homeland, and the government have been engaged in their fiercest fighting since 2003.
However, places such as Jolo and Basilan — a larger island to the north — that once were the Filipino equivalent of Iraq's Anbar province have remained relatively calm since the fighting resumed in mid-August.
U.S. military commanders here give much of the credit to Sabban, and he said that U.S. forces are indispensable to his effort.
Sabban's baby-faced demeanor and soft voice belie a complicated past. As a junior officer, he was among those who helped overthrow dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Three years later, he participated in a coup attempt against President Corazon Aquino. He spent several years in jail and then on the run.
Sabban's Marines took over from the Philippine Army here three years ago, and began implementing a "hearts and minds" strategy to win over the populace. He calls it "a scramble for the masses."
It was a sharp change in approach for the Filipino government, which over the years had alternated between negotiating peace with the rebels and attempting to bludgeon them into submission.
Sabban gives his troops human rights training, and seems convinced — and proud — that the populace has shifted to his side and away from the rebels.
One day, a local village chief told Sabban's troops that Abu Sayyaf leader Khaddafy Janjalani and 150 of his men had just passed nearby. Filipino troops killed Janjalani in a firefight on Sept. 4, 2006, dealing the group a blow from which it's yet to recover. Sabban recounted the story in an interview a mile from where Janjalani died.
"Now we have early-warning devices all over the jungle," he says, referring to sympathetic civilians.
U.S. Special Operations Forces play a supporting role that's highly sensitive politically. Opponents of the U.S. military presence here charge that Washington is trying to re-establish the Philippines bases it closed in the early 1990s, an intention American commanders deny.
U.S. Army Col. Bill Coultrup, the commander of the 500-person Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, includes a slide in his standard PowerPoint briefing that warns: "Any perception of U.S. offensive or unilateral operations equals U.S. strategic failure in the Philippines."
So, while American funds help pay for rebuilt bridges and refurbished wells, U.S. soldiers don't do a single good deed without Philippine military officers beside them, ensuring that the Filipinos and the government in Manila get the credit.
Officials at the Pentagon and the State Department say that Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, an early convert to President Bush's war on terror, has every incentive to keep the arrangement going for as long as possible — and with it the flow of U.S. money and expertise.
Filipino commanders say they still need U.S. assistance, particularly in the form of sophisticated intelligence.
The U.S. troops "have been a very big factor in our success here," Sabban said. "If the U.S. forces will be out, it will be a big blow to our strategy."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2008