- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia — President Bush yesterday braved a different kind of terrorism, from paramilitary groups that control parts of this South American country, and found himself defending his new troop increases to combat terrorism halfway around the globe.

Mr. Bush said his decision over the weekend to add more than 4,500 troops to Iraq is because the 21,500 troops he announced in January need the support, and he told Congress to fund the effort “without any strings attached.”

“My hope, of course, is that Congress provides the funding necessary for the combat troops to be able to do their job,” Mr. Bush said.

Democrats in Congress are challenging Mr. Bush’s troop surge and plan to try to force an end to combat operations by limiting funding.

Mr. Bush also said this weekend’s regional security conference on Iraq, at which an American representative met with counterparts from Iran and Syria, was a good start — in particular because all sides are now talking about how to secure Iraq.

“We of course welcome those words,” the president said. “Now they can act on them.”

Mr. Bush is the first U.S. president to visit Bogota since Ronald Reagan made the trip 25 years ago, and security was heavy.

Even before landing, many on Air Force One saw a travel advisory flash on their monitors: “Colombia presents the most significant threat environment of this five-country trip.”

The warning said the threat was “high” from both terrorists and criminals, and offered common-sense precautions such as traveling in groups.

At the airport, Air Force One parked behind an embankment that shielded Mr. Bush’s arrival from the open runway, and there was even a decoy motorcade that left from the airport to try to confuse would-be attackers.

All told, Mr. Bush spent about six hours on the ground — the only country on his five-nation swing not to merit an overnight visit.

Thousands of spectators, most of them seeming either supportive or curious, turned out along the route Mr. Bush took. But at one point riot police clashed with protesters, who carried a red flag with the communist hammer-and-sickle symbol and a banner that read “Yankee go home.”

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe acknowledged the security situation.

“You have come to Colombia at a time of unrest because of the peace process that is taking place,” he said.

More than the other four stops on his journey, this visit by Mr. Bush was meant mainly as a show of support for the nation’s embattled president. And Mr. Uribe took full advantage, using the stage at a press conference with Mr. Bush to give a vehement defense of the way he is handling his domestic problems.

He is facing harsh criticism after some lawmakers, including some of his close allies, have been jailed on charges they colluded with a right-wing paramilitary group responsible for much of the violence that has made this such a dangerous country.

Mr. Uribe has set up a tribunal system that he said is independent enough to handle the charges.

“It is truth, justice and reparations,” he said of his approach, according to the official translator.

Mr. Bush told Mr. Uribe the two nations “have been friends and we will remain friends.”

“Your country has come through very difficult times and now there’s a brighter day ahead,” Mr. Bush said in a toast at a working lunch with Mr. Uribe.

Mr. Bush is asking for about $700 million in aid for Colombia, a large chunk of U.S. foreign aid that some in Congress question, arguing too much of it goes to the military.

Mr. Bush said yesterday was Mr. Uribe’s chance to prove he deserves the aid.

“It’s going to be very important for members of our United States Congress to see that determination. And I believe, if given a fair chance, President Uribe can make the case,” Mr. Bush said.

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