Iqbal: MILF will help gov’t find Usman

Ayee Macaraig
Iqbal: MILF will help gov’t find Usman
In his first appearance at the Senate hearing on the Mamasapano clash, the MILF chief negotiator says his group is committed to help track down terrorist Abdul Basit Usman, and reiterates the importance of the peace process

MANILA, Philippines – The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) committed to help the government find terrorist Abdul Basit Usman, a key request of President Benigno Aquino III for the rebel group to restore trust in the peace process after the Mamasapano clash.

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal made the commitment as he appeared in the Senate inquiry on Thursday, February 12, after skipping 3 congressional hearings on the incident.  

Yet Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago said that it was a sign of “bad faith” when Iqbal asked for an executive session on the details of what the MILF knew about Usman and Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as Marwan. Marwan was killed in the January 25 encounter with elite cops, but Usman escaped. 

Santiago grilled Iqbal about a key question raised in the aftermath of the deadly clash: Did the MILF not know that Marwan and Usman were hiding in Mamasapano in Maguindanao, known to be their territory?

 “Can the MILF claim with a straight face that you did not know Marwan and Usman were there,” asked Santiago.

Iqbal responded, “Hindi po namin alam (We did not know).”

The MILF leader then explained that the area where Marwan and Usman were hiding in was a “civilian community” with a mix of civilians, and different armed groups.

 “You cannot compartmentalize the activities [of the different groups]. Granting Marwan and Usman were there, they were hiding,” Iqbal said.

Iqbal then added that there is a mechanism for the MILF and the government to coordinate to go after and “isolate” kidnap and ransom groups, criminals and terrorists. The mechanism is under the group called the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG). 

“We have a deep relationship with the AHJAG. I cannot disclose the details but maybe in executive session,” Iqbal said.

Santiago asked Iqbal point-blank if the MILF will help the government find Usman, and he answered in the affirmative.

The Senate is investigating the mission to arrest Marwan and Usman that killed 44 elite cops, at least 17 MILF members, and 3 civilians. It was the government’s single biggest loss of forces in an operation, but the MILF blamed the heavy toll on the police Special Action Force’s (SAF) failure to coordinate the mission with the group.

The clash enraged the public and threatens to derail the peace process between the government and the MILF after the two sides signed a historic deal in 2014 following 17 years of negotiations.

 ‘Tell that to the families’

The chairperson of the Senate committee on constitutional amendments, Santiago asked Iqbal about the implications of the encounter on the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). The bill aims to create an expanded autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao as a key part of the peace process. The peace panels initially wanted it to be passed by March. 

Santiago said, “How do you expect the BBL to pass the Senate with this perfidious tragedy?”

Iqbal responded and even quoted the Bible, “Let us find the truth. Like what is said in the Bible, the truth hurts but it will set you free.”

Santiago, though, did not allow him to finish. The senator was hostile to Iqbal, repeatedly cutting him off.

Iqbal reiterated that the clash was a “misencounter,” saying the MILF did not mean to fight the SAF and vice versa.

Yet the legal expert said, “Misencounter is not a word in the dictionary.”

Santiago then asked why there was a delay in implementing a ceasefire.

Iqbal responded, “Both sides, MILF and SAF, used heavy firearms. If these were boxers, it would be hard to separate them.”

Santiago shot back, “Tell that to the families.”

When Iqbal attempted to explain, Santiago said, “If I want your opinion, I will ask for it or I will give it to you.”

‘Thousands of Moros massacred, too’

In his opening statement and testimony, Iqbal asked the senators and the public not to prejudge and blame the MILF for the clash, saying it has yet to complete its own investigation, and that it also lost its own men.  

Iqbal said he missed the first hearings on the incident because he attended a peace forum in Jakarta, Indonesia, along with MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim. He conveyed Murad’s condolences to the families of the slain SAF and MILF forces.

Senator Teofisto Guingona III asked Iqbal to clarify his statement that the MILF remains a “revolutionary organization,” which Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr had branded “provocative.”

It was at this point that Iqbal gave a historical background on the Moro struggle, starting with the Spanish colonization up to now. He included the Jabidah Massacre under the presidency of Marcos’ father, the late Ferdinand Marcos.

“Going back to the narratives, the Moros felt that we were not really part of the Philippines,” Iqbal explained.

“In 1898, 90% of the land in Mindanao belonged to the Moros but now it’s just 30% or even less. We lost our lands. And then in 1968, the Jabidah Massacre opened the eyes of the Moros that there is no future in the Philippines. And then what followed was the Ilaga, where tens of thousands were massacred. This is why we formed the MILF, to fight for the rights of the Moros,” Iqbal said.

Iqbal explained that while the initial goal of the MILF was to have an independent state, it agreed to peace talks with the Estrada, Arroyo, and now Aquino administrations.

He said the MILF’s act of signing the various agreements under the peace process with the Aquino administration showed its sincerity in the talks. He said once the process is completed, it will cease to become a revolutionary group.

“Our goal is to have full autonomy with power and resources so we can give the Moros an opportunity to lead ourselves but still part of the Republic of the Philippines. We will become a social movement once the process is completed, and form a political party,” said Iqbal.

“The BBL contains our hopes and our dreams, if not for us, our children. We waited for this opportunity for 17 years. We promised our people a legacy of peace. Let peace be our legacy. Let us be partners for peace.” – Rappler.com

 

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