MANILA, Philippines – Philippine elections are largely a battle of name recall, so Agakhan Sharief has chosen a moniker that will surely capture the attention of voters well beyond his backwater southern province — Usama bin Laden.
Unlike the world's most-wanted terror suspect, Sharief is known by many in Lanao del Sur province as a peacemaker who has helped broker truces when sporadic clashes have erupted between government troops and Muslim insurgents.
Sporting an 18-inch long beard, turban and a neck scarf similar to that worn by bin Laden in TV images, the 35-year-old Sharief has been campaigning frenziedly for a seat in Lanao's legislative council in May 14 elections.
Posters bear his real name with the explosive moniker plastered in the middle in big, bold letters: "BIN LADEN."
He owes his nickname partly to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Sharief said.
After attending a peace-and-order meeting led by Arroyo in Lanao in 2002, Sharief asked the president to pose for a souvenir picture with him. Somebody in the crowd jokingly told Arroyo that he was known around town by the infamous nickname.
"Oh, I see, the young bin Laden of Mindanao," Sharief quoted Arroyo as saying. The crowd erupted in laughter and applause.
"When I walked out of that meeting, I had a different name — bin Laden," Sharief told The Associated Press by telephone.
Maj. Gen. Ben Dolorfino, once the head of Lanao marine forces, said Sharief has connections with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a large rebel group waging a decades-old rebellion for self-rule, and has helped end some clashes between the insurgents and troops.
"He is the other Usama; he's a peacemaker," Dolorfino said.
Sharief, a father of nine and husband of a school teacher, has mixed feelings about bin Laden.
While condemning the killing of innocent people in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., Sharief said he still is not convinced of bin Laden's involvement. Muslims have the right to struggle for living conditions, he said.