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US defense chief heads to Latin America under Chavez shadow

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates left Tuesday on his first trip to Latin America to meet top allies, under the shadow of Venezuela's rearmament efforts and growing ties with Iran, Russia and China.

Gates will visit El Salvador, the only Latin American country to still have troops in Iraq, on the trip. Other stops were not revealed.

Gates, who succeeded Donald Rumsfeld in December, had been scheduled to visit the region in July, with stops in Colombia, where Washington has spent billions to fight drug trafficking, and Chile and Peru. But he postponed the trip to stay in Washington for a showdown between the White House and Congress over the Iraq war.

The US defense chief will likely discuss the war with Salvadoran President Antonio Saca, whose government reduced its contingent in Iraq from 380 to 280 troops in August. Five Salvadoran soldiers have died in Iraq since 2003.

Besides meeting US allies, the US defense chief's trip is also aimed at countering the growing influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in the region, analysts say.

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