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Rice Urges Congressional Approval of Free Trade Agreements

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is urging Congress to pass three Latin American free trade agreements, saying defeat of those deals would deliver a great blow to America's standing in the region.

Secretary Rice made her comments Tuesday at the headquarters of the Organization of American States in Washington.

Rice said failure to pass the deals with Colombia, Panama and Peru would send a loud and clear message across the region that the United States cannot be trusted to keep its promises.

U.S. officials say the agreements will help American exporters by cutting duties on their products to the three nations. They say 90 percent of imports from Colombia, Panama and Peru already enter the United States duty-free.

Some U.S. lawmakers, however, are concerned that free trade deals with Peru and other countries could jeopardize American jobs.

Last week, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee approved the deal with Peru in a significant step toward ratification by the U.S. Congress. The agreement also is expected to go before the House Ways and Means Committee next week. Many Peruvian farmers fear the deal - which lawmakers in their country ratified last year - will hurt local businesses.

Last month, some U.S. officials said the deal with Panama may be in jeopardy after the country's National Assembly elected as its leader a lawmaker wanted by the United States on charges he shot dead a U.S. soldier in 1992. The lawmaker, Pedro Miguel Gonzalez, denies any role in the incident.

Separately, U.S. labor groups oppose the agreement with Colombia, citing human rights concerns. Critics also say Colombia has a history of violence against trade union leaders.

Democratic Party legislators who control the U.S. Congress also say they are concerned about Colombia's rights record and alleged links between that government and illegal paramilitaries.

President Bush has said free trade is the best way to lift people out of poverty and that Congress will have to decide whether or not to turn its back on a friend in considering the deal with Colombia.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.