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Pentagon Chief on Latin America Security Mission

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Colombia, the second stop on a five-nation visit to Latin America that began Tuesday morning in El Salvador. VOA's Al Pessin is traveling with the secretary, and reports his talks are focusing on regional issues and the war in Iraq.

A senior official traveling with Secretary Gates calls Colombia a strategic partner in combating drug trafficking and international crime. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the United States wants to negotiate a free trade agreement with Colombia, in part to provide the country with more tax revenues so it can finance more of its own defense needs.

The U.S. Congress wants to reduce military aid to Colombia in the coming years.

The official says Colombia has made good progress during the last five years in establishing security and improving government services, but he says the struggle is not over to, in his words, take back the country from narco-terrorists. Secretary Gates will meet with Colombia's top leaders on Wednesday, and the official says they may also discuss the possibility of establishing a small U.S. military base in Colombia, to replace one at Manta in Ecuador that that country's government wants removed.

On Tuesday in El Salvador, the secretary discussed the Iraq war and regional issues with President Antonio Saca and other officials. Secretary Gates thanked El Salvador for its continuing support for the coalition in Iraq, including the presence of 280 Salvadoran troops.

"Obviously, we would like to have the continued assistance of the Salvadoran contingent in Iraq in the future," he said. "This is essentially a decision that is up to the government of El Salvador. I would say that the government of President Saca has been very forward-leaning in this regard. He has told me that El Salvador will continue to play its part in helping us as long as necessary. But at the end of the day it's a decision that must be made by the Salvadorans."

Secretary Gates called El Salvador one of the United States' most faithful coalition partners, and he expressed his condolences for the five Salvadoran troops who have died in Iraq.

President Saca said he is committed to finishing the job in Iraq, but he added that it is very important to gradually reduce the number of coalition troops there as the situation improves.

After his talks here in Colombia Wednesday, Secretary Gates will travel on to Chile, Peru and Suriname.