SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Plans for the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) from Sasebo Naval Base, as well as those for Okinawa’s 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), are under wraps and uncertain following controversy about foreign forces fighting in the Philippines.

Last month, Pentagon officials said special operations troops and Marines would fight alongside Philippine soldiers against the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim guerrilla group in the Pacific island nation that’s been linked to al-Qaida.

The Pentagon’s stance, that the mission include a combat role for U.S. troops, clashed with that of Philippine military officials. The country’s constitution bans foreign-combat missions without a treaty.

“We have to find an approach that will help them without violating their constitution,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Friday.

Also Friday, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo gave the Philippine military 90 days to wipe out the rebel group. However, the ships and Marines already were gearing up to deploy.

Asked what the ARG and embarked Marines will do while Arroyo’s 90-day order to Philippine troops plays out, Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesman, said Tuesday, “I don’t have anything to add” to Rumsfeld’s remarks.

On Feb. 21, U.S. news reports stated that a combat deployment to the Philippines for up to 3,000 U.S. troops was imminent.

According to Marine Capt. Neil A. Peterson, spokesman for the 31st MEU, the USS Essex and USS Fort McHenry — with a third member of the Essex ARG, the USS Juneau — embarked about 1,900 Marines at White Beach Naval Facility in Okinawa last week.

The Marine spokesman released little information about the probability and timing of a Philippines mission.

“The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) has been ordered to deploy from Okinawa, Japan, to conduct contingency operations in the Western Pacific and for any future contingencies as may be directed,” Peterson said.

“As a matter of policy, we do not discuss future operations nor specific destinations of naval forces.”

David Allen and Lisa Burgess contributed to this report.

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