Duterte’s Forces Struggle To Push Back Islamist Rebels In The Southern Philippines

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Tirmizy Abdullah, a teacher in Marawi, wants to know what has happened to his city and why the Philippine military keeps dropping bombs on it.

“They should have been able to end this conflict days ago,” said Abdullah, 27, speaking by phone Friday from his home, within earshot of fighting between government troops and forces linked to the Islamic State. “We are very frustrated with the airstrike campaign because it is putting civilians at risk, it is destroying our town, and still the battle is not over. We are never sure what the government is actually doing.”

Ten days after President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law on the southern island of Mindanao to respond to an Islamist siege in Marawi, the capital of Mindanao’s Lanao del Sur province, much of the Philippine political establishment has rallied around him. But the military campaign itself has gone much less smoothly, with some local residents and observers questioning the government’s combat strategy and the credibility of its public communications.

On Monday, armed-forces spokesman Restituto Padilla told reporters that government troops were in “full control” of the city and that civilians would be safe, but on Friday, bombs continued to fall, the death toll stood at 175 and rebels reportedly still held hostages. A day earlier, the military announced that one of its airstrikes had accidentally killed 11 of its soldiers. And the population has been baffled by a string of contradictory statements, if not outright falsehoods, coming from the government, leaving many Filipinos unsure of what is actually going on.

Steven Rood, a professor at Australian National University who has studied armed conflicts in the Philippines for years, said it is not surprising that the government has failed to control all of Mindanao, since militant Islamist and left-wing rebels have been active on the impoverished island for decades. But the new, more radical contingent involved in the May 23 attack caught the government unawares with its numbers and tactics, he said.

“The Philippine military hasn’t really been trained for urban warfare, as they have been going against rebels in the hills for so long,” Rood said. “And they admit they simply don’t have the precision-guided munitions that would make aerial bombardment to take out particular houses feasible.” He added, “There have been slip-ups in the communication strategy, and they know it.”

The day Duterte declared martial law, he said a police captain had been decapitated, but The Washington Post spoke with the man days later. More recently, in addition to numerous premature assurances of order being restored in Marawi, presidential communications assistant Mocha Uson was criticized when it turned out the praying soldiers whose photo she had posted to her Facebook account were from Honduras, not the Philippines. She responded by saying the photo’s meaning was “symbolic.”

In a news conference in Marawi on Friday, military officials said they expected the operation to take additional days to complete, blaming the presence of snipers. In a statement Thursday on the friendly-fire accident, the military acknowledged the mistake but declared it would “incessantly push . . . forward to retake the remaining part of Marawi and liberate the people.”

Authorities know that two armed Islamist groups worked together to take part of the city. They believe that locally based Maute rebels attacked when officials there attempted to apprehend Isnilon Hapilon, the longtime leader of the Abu Sayyaf group, which normally operates in the southwest, far from Marawi. Hapilon is on the FBI’S “Most Wanted Terrorists” list.

But a number of questions still hang over the deadly siege. It’s unknown whether the attack was already planned or more of a reaction to the attempt to capture Hapilon. Speculation is rife as to how much the two groups actually coordinate with the Islamic State, as well as about how the Maute group is funded. Abu Sayyaf has long carried out kidnappings for ransom, gaining notoriety for beheading foreigners.

Amid the uncertainty, fear of the Islamic State has pervaded the archipelago nation. Early Friday morning, when shooting was reported at a casino in Manila, the capital, many Filipinos – and U.S. President Donald Trump – jumped to the conclusion that it was an act of terrorism. Police now say they believe a botched robbery led to 36 people dying of smoke inhalation.

Islam has been in the Philippines since before the Spanish brought Christianity here in the 1500s, and Muslims say the minority population has suffered from discrimination and broken promises.

Marawi residents such as Abdullah and student Mohammad Aiman Langlang – who say they abhor Maute ideology and tactics – fear that more of the region’s youths could be drawn to join the rebels if the government’s military strategy is seen as too violent or its leaders offer no credible long-term solutions. Very young boys reportedly fight with the Islamists, apparently receiving payment.

Recruits or sympathizers may be continuously entering the fray, even as soldiers make progress against original rebel positions.

“I wasn’t surprised about the attack, since there had been rumors in the city that this was coming for about a month,” said Langlang, 23, who left the city recently and now follows developments via Facebook and messaging with friends who are still there. “I was surprised how long they have been able to sustain it.”

Like Abdullah, Langlang opposes the airstrike campaign and says he does not trust government reports. “Many of the messages coming from the military conflict with what we see,” he said. “They’ll say, for example, that a certain area near my home is under their control. And it’s just not.”

Special To The Washington Post ยท Vincent Bevins

{Matzav}

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