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ARLINGTON, Va. — One week after the Bush administration outlined plans to pair American and Philippine troops on a hunt for Muslim rebels in the Asian nation, U.S. and Philippine officials backed away from the combat operation, saying details were still in the works.

On Feb. 21, Pentagon officials said that 350 U.S. special operations troops, backed by 1,000 Marines waiting in reserve, would fight alongside Philippine troops against the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim guerrilla group both governments say is tied to al-Qaida.

But the Pentagon’s insistence that the mission would include a combat role for U.S. troops clashed with Philippine military officials, since the Philippine constitution bans foreign combat operations without a formal treaty. In fact, Philippine officials insisted on calling the deployment a “training exercise.”

The two different characterizations of the mission prompted a major backlash in the Philippines. Many Filipinos are suspicious of U.S. motives in pursuing Abu Sayyaf, whom most locals characterize as a rag-tag band of thugs interested more in ransom money than international terrorist schemes.

After meeting with Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes over lunch Friday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said there would be a U.S.-Philippine “activity” this year aimed at Abu Sayyaf, but said no final decision had been made.

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

Meanwhile, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on Friday, gave the Philippine military 90 days to wipe out the rebel group.

Instead, Reyes chose to meet with journalists by himself earlier Friday morning in Washington. Reyes claims U.S. and Philippine officials are “groping for the exact term” to describe the upcoming mission, according to The Associated Press.

What the Philippines wants, Reyes said, is for two or three American advisers to accompany small Philippine military units during operations against Abu Sayyaf.

Such operations would meet the Philippine definition of a training exercise, Reyes said, since Filipino soldiers don’t graduate from training until they have actual combat experience.

“Having American forces there to assist, advise and support Philippine forces who are engaged in combat operations is allowed by the Philippine constitution,” Reyes said. “The problem is one of definition. I realize this would be combat operations under the American definition.”

Last year, U.S. and Philippine troops met for “Balikatan,” a two-part exercise in which the Pentagon sent about 1,300 “advisors” and support personnel to the island of Basilan for six months to train Filipino military troops in counterterrorism techniques.

On Friday Rumsfeld called Balikatan “highly successful in dealing with Abu Sayyaf,” although critics maintain that most of the rebels simply went to other islands, like Jolo, which is about 70 miles southwest of Basilan.

The Philippine government and the Bush administration are discussing another Balikatan exercise, Rumsfeld said, “but exactly what the formula will be, I don’t know — we are still discussing that.”

But on Feb. 21, the Washington Post and the New York Times reported that a combat deployment to the Philippines for up to 3,000 U.S. troops was imminent. Key members of Congress received notification of the operation on Feb. 20 from Pentagon officials, the newspapers reported.

Meanwhile,a defense official who declined to be named, offered Stripes and other media outlets extensive details about the operation: a force that would include 1,000 Marines from the USS Essex and the USS Fort McHenry, along with elements of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit from Okinawa.

Along for the ride would be 1,200 to 1,500 Navy sailors who support the two ships stationed near the island of Jolo.

Meanwhile, another 750 U.S. troops would act as the “boots on the ground,” component, the official said. This would include 350 special operations forces based on the Sulu archipelago, and 400 support personnel based in Zamboanga, where the Philippine military has a regional headquarters.

All U.S. troops involved in the new mission were supposed to be under Maj. Gen. Joseph Weber, the commander of Marines in the Pacific. But, the Philippine military would have the overall lead for the operations, the official said.

But Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, dismissed the entire rundown.

“The problem is, people think news is something that’s reported before it happens,” Rumsfeld said. The Philippine mission “hasn’t happened,” he said.

“The secretary never made a final decision” on the mission that was outlined by defense officials last week said Myers, who appeared with Rumsfeld during the news briefing.

Rumsfeld would not say whether the Essex would now head home, or whether the other Marines and special operations forces identified for the operation last week would stay put for time being. When journalists asked Rumsfeld why they had received so much detail from Pentagon officials on a mission that the secretary was now characterizing as something that had never been finalized, he said, “You are going to be told things every day that aren’t going to happen.”

When the Bush administration and the Philippine government come to an agreement about a joint deployment, there will be no questions about whether or not combat is part of the U.S. mission, Rumsfeld said.

“In the last analysis, the U.S. government daily demonstrates its inability to deal with nuance,” Rumsfeld said, prompting laughter from the assemble reporters. “Whatever it is we do substantively, there will be near-perfect clarity.”

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