Following a confirmation that Americans were playing a role in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), military officials have now clarified that U.S. troops are on the ground in southern Marawi, though “not allowed to fight.”
Marawi, the Philippines’ only official “Islamic City,” fell under siege by local forces loyal to the Islamic State last month who wish to establish a caliphate in the country, where more than 95 percent of the people are Christians. Marawi lies on Mindanao island, home to President Rodrigo Duterte.
“There are some U.S. personnel who are operating equipment to provide information on situation awareness to our troops,” spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla told reporters Wednesday.
“I do not know the exact number and the specific mission. They are allowed to carry rifles for self-defense. But they are not allowed to fight, they only provide support.”
Padilla added that the American troops were providing help with “situational awareness,” mainly intelligence gathering.
The Philippines had already confirmed U.S. cooperation with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) but not the presence of individual U.S. ground troops on Mindanao, actively aiding the operation against the Islamic State there.
“We have standing protocols which are already in place. … It does not involve any boots on the ground nor is there any direct participation in combat operations,” presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said this week.
The president himself, Duterte, also confirmed U.S. military officials were in the area, but he claimed, “I never approached any American to say, ‘Tumulong kayo (Help us). We don’t really need their help.”
“Maybe a little,” he admitted. He added, “I have to be thankful.”
Duterte’s statement directly contradicts that of U.S. officials. U.S. embassy spokeswoman Molly Koscina told reporters:
At the request of the government of the Philippines, US special operation forces are assisting the AFP with ongoing operations in Marawi. The US non-combat support helps AFP commanders on the ground in their fight against Maute and ASG (Abu Sayyaf Group) militants.
While Duterte has demanded U.S. troops leave the area in the past, he recently admitted that his stance against an American military presence in the country was unpopular among his troops. “Our soldiers are pro-American, that I cannot deny,” Duterte said last week.
The AFP has confirmed more than 200 jihadists have died in the 23 days of struggle for control of Marawi, along with 58 soldiers and 26 civilians. Manila has estimated the battle will continue for at least two weeks but have refused to give new ultimatums following the passage of the original deadline, which is Philippine Independence Day on Monday.
Officials say the terrorists are using mosques as stakeout centers, sniping at soldiers from minarets. The military has refused to target mosques for airstrikes, however, fearing potential civilian collateral damage.
“There is strict instruction from the chief of staff (Gen. Eduardo Año) that we will respect these areas, these places of worship,” Padilla clarified on Wednesday.
Officials say only 20 percent of Marawi is under ISIS control, overrun by terrorists of the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf, two groups that have pledged allegiance to “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The Islamic State had released a statement through spokesman Aboulhassan al-Mouhajer “congratulating” the terrorists for taking over 60 percent of the city, a claim Philippine authorities dismissed as “pure propaganda.”
While Philippine officials have identified some ISIS terrorists in Marawi as foreign nationals recruited to bring the fight to the country, the local Maute group has complicated the battle by recruiting child soldiers for years from the indigenous Muslim minority.
In an exclusive report, the Philippine website Rappler spoke to an anonymous former child soldier who said his parents let him travel to Marawi from a poor neighboring community believing that the Maute group would pay for the child’s Islamic education.
“But a month into the lessons, they gave him a rifle and taught him how to kill,” Rappler notes, quoting the boy, who said he was told that “all the Christians in the world must die.”