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Colombia Remains Staunch US Ally in War on Terror

During a week when America's attention was riveted on hearings into the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Washington hosted a foreign leader whose country has withstood more than 30 years of horrific terrorist violence. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe shared his thoughts on the war on terrorism before returning to Bogota Thursday.

Colombia is distinct among South American nations. At a time when other countries in the region - most notably Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina - have distanced themselves from the United States, Colombia continues to press for the closest possible relations with Washington, urging further increases in military cooperation and pressing for a bilateral free trade accord.

Under President Alvaro Uribe, Colombia remains the only South American nation to join the Bush administration's so-called "coalition of the willing" in Iraq. In Mr. Uribe, President Bush has found a staunch ally in the war on terrorism. The Colombian leader had this to say at the National Press Club.

"No democratic government in the world can go along with [condone] terror," he said. "The greatest enemy of democracy nowadays is terrorism. Terrorism is a new version of dictatorship. It strikes the people. It abolishes freedoms. It disregards the law. It does not matter [care about] the constitution. Terrorism speaks about political ideas, but it is just an excuse to try to explain its activities of terror."

No country in the Americas has more first-hand experience with terrorism than Colombia. For decades, the country has been plagued by leftist guerrillas, right-wing death squads and powerful drug cartels - all of which have resorted to terror tactics in pursuit of their goals. No single attack in Colombia has ever reached the magnitude of the September 11, 2001 tragedy in the United States, but death toll estimates from 40 years of conflict in Colombia range from 50,000 to 100,000 people.

President Uribe says Colombians understand all too well that democracy cannot flourish without security.

"We see a necessary team [coupling] between security and democracy," he said. "Security is a democratic value. Nowadays, it is impossible to foster democracy without providing security to the people."

Over the last two years, Colombia has recorded dramatic decreases in attacks, killings and kidnappings - as well as sharp cuts in coca leaf production. Some observers have credited a multibillion dollar U.S. aid program launched in 2000, called "Plan Colombia," with providing the funds and equipment necessary to boost security in Colombia.

But former U.S. ambassador to Colombia Miles Frechette says it is President Uribe who deserves most of the praise.

"What you see in President Uribe is a man who is faithful to his word," he said. "He came into office and he increased the spraying of [illegal drug] crops. He has steadfastly opposed terrorism. He has refused to negotiate with the guerrillas on the basis of, 'You can continue fighting and we will keep talking.' The predecessors of President Uribe never quite lived up to their promises. This is a man [Uribe] who means what he says and gets results."

Even so, Mr. Frechette, who served as U.S. ambassador from 1994 through 1997, says it could take as long as two decades before a lasting peace finally comes to Colombia.

"I have said many timers that it will take 15-20 years. What is necessary is a continuity of policy by the [future] presidents of Colombia that follow President Uribe," he said. "That is absolutely essential. If that does not happen, perhaps the period of recovery will take even longer."

An initiative is under way in Colombia to amend the constitution so as to allow President Uribe to run for re-election in 2006. Asked whether he backed the measure, Mr. Uribe said it is for the people to decide.