ZAMBOANGA, Philippines -- Before heading to a southern Philippine island to help fight extremist Muslim rebels, U.S. troops were taught a few things -- including that roots of the same conflict brought American Gen. John Pershing here a century ago and led to the invention of the Colt .45 pistol.
The first batch of a 160-strong special forces unit was deployed Sunday to the remote island of Basilan, where they will help train Philippine troops fighting rebels linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida's terrorist network.
The 80 or so Abu Sayyaf members are holding an American couple and a Filipino nurse hostage.
But before going, the U.S. troops took seminars on cultural sensitivity and on the roots of Muslim rebellion in the poverty-wracked south of this former U.S. colony.
"We're presenting this cultural sensitivity, the do's and don'ts, so they would not encounter problems and create new problems," said Datu Amil Jumaani, a Muslim professor who lectured the U.S. troops at a military camp in Zamboanga, a city on Mindanao, the main island adjacent to little Basilan.
The troops were told about local customs in the conservative Muslim region. One booklet said they should "refrain from showing public display of affection by embracing or kissing while strolling along our thoroughfares or in our plazas for this may offend the sensitivities of the people."
The seminar also taught the soldiers to show sincerity by placing their hand on their heart after shaking hands. They were also taught not to discuss religion in the religiously divided region.
In spreading the U.S.-led war against terrorism, President Bush had wanted American combat troops to take on the Abu Sayyaf. However, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, apparently trying to avoid arguments with nationalists and left-wing groups that helped bring her to power, declined and gave him the next best thing -- war drills on the Abu Sayyaf home ground.
Jumaani also told the Americans that they should know that Muslim unrest in the southern Philippines has dragged on for centuries.
"It's an old war," he says.
Arab missionaries brought Islam to the Philippines in the 14th century. Spanish colonizers arrived in 1521, bringing Christianity that was embraced by the central and northern Philippines. Christian settlers later ventured farther south to Mindanao island in search of land and food, relegating the minority Muslims to the margins.
Dispossessed of their land and threatened by successive foreign invaders, Muslims waged uprisings on and off for nearly 500 years to the present.
The United States fought a war to end Spain's 377-year colonial grip on the Philippines. Spain ceded the spice-rich colony to America under the Treaty of Paris in 1898. But the Americans didn't let go of the Philippines right away, provoking unrest among Filipinos, including Muslims in the south.
In 1899, America sent a young cavalryman, John Pershing, for a campaign to crush Filipino Muslim insurrectionists, gaining battle victories and criticism with his tough methods.
He got his popular nickname "Black Jack Pershing" from the West Point military academy, after students felt his discipline was too strict and derided his past stint with a black unit, historians say.
A 1913 attack on Muslim rebels resisting American rule on the southern Philippine island of Jolo ordered by Pershing killed many Filipino Muslims; estimates range from 300 to 2,000. Pershing was criticized.
In the campaign, American troops armed with .38-caliber revolvers had difficulty stopping suicidal guerrillas with a single shot. That forced them to adopt the Colt .45-caliber pistol that packs more punch.
"The .45-caliber Colt automatic revolver was invented to ward off the Moro (Muslim) warriors," according to a booklet handed out in one of the cultural sensitivity seminars.
As a reward for his ability in the southern Philippines, Pershing was promoted to brigadier general. A popular public square in the predominantly Christian city of Zamboanga bears his name.
A few hundred American troops are now in a military camp in Zamboanga as part of the exercises called Balikatan, or "shoulder to shoulder."
Abu Sayyaf guerrillas say the U.S. troops deployed to Basilan to help Filipino troops wipe them out are like those in Pershing's days and have vowed to resist them.
"Today, we are again facing the modern-day version of Black Jack Pershing," an Abu Sayyaf statement said.
From a peak of 2,000 guerrillas, the Abu Sayyaf now has fewer than a hundred armed members on Basilan, according to the Philippine military.
The rebels claim they are Muslim independence fighters, but the government dismisses them as mere bandits.
The Abu Sayyaf is notorious for beheadings, kidnappings and violence that impede development in the resource-rich but appallingly poor southern Philippines. Officials acknowledge that poverty and dispossession have caused Abu Sayyaf's rank to swell in the past.
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