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About 400 U.S. servicemembers, mostly from Hawaii and Japan, will take part in this year’s scaled-down, Feb. 18-March 4 Balikatan exercise in the Philippines, according to a U.S. Army spokesman.

Lt. Col. Mark Zimmer, Balikatan public affairs officer, said Wednesday from Hawaii that U.S. participation would consist mostly of sailors and Marines from Hawaii and the III Marine Expeditionary Force.

They’ll team with about 300 members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to conduct civic action projects in the Philippines’ volatile southern region. The troops will focus efforts on Jolo Island, where two of the country’s most-wanted terror suspects recently were killed in a months-long, U.S.-backed offensive.

The annual war games typically involve from 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops, but the field-training portion was canceled for this year. The entire exercise initially was called off amid a custody dispute in 2006 about convicted rapist Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith. But after the Philippine government intervened and authorized transferring Smith in late December to the U.S. Embassy, the 23rd annual Balikatan was back on.

The field training requires a lot of planning, Zimmer said, and once the exercise was canceled, “we basically had to turn it (the field portion) off.”

Balikatan’s opening ceremony will be Feb. 19 in Manila. Also planned is a tabletop exercise in Manila with military planners from both countries, U.S. Navy ship visits and a joint/combined exchange training exercise in several locations.

Civic action projects include road improvement and medical clinics on Jolo Island, in Zamboanga City and in other towns and villages in the greater Mindanao area, Zimmer said.

The projects will complement similar activities carried out during Balikatan 2006 in the Sulu region, as well as ongoing operations by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, according to a U.S. Pacific Command press release.

The medical clinics will include both Philippine and U.S. military medical personnel treating the local population — and in some cases, pets and livestock — for minor ailments, while handing out medicine and preventive health information.

The projects’ objective is the same as it’s always been, Zimmer said: Improving both militaries’ ability to work with each other in providing humanitarian aid.

But that these projects are held in the same region where the Philippine military conducts most of its anti-terrorism work is no accident, Zimmer said.

One way to deny sanctuary to terrorists is to get local residents on your side, he said.

Adm. William J. Fallon, new Central Command head, decided while still PACOM commander that “he wanted to do these projects in the south for these types of reasons,” Zimmer said. “There’s 7,000 islands in the Philippines … a lot of places to hide.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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