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'Three Amigos' Pledge Cooperation

President Bush and leaders of Mexico and Canada promised new cooperation, yet disagreements over defense, immigration and trade continued to strain North American relations.

To demonstrate unity, President Bush, Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin appeared together at Baylor University to announce their neighborhood pact. It's designed to make trade more efficient and borders more secure without obstructing business and traffic.

"We've got a lot of trade with each other," said Mr. Bush. "We intend to keep it that way. We've got a lot of crossings of the border. I intend to make our borders more secure and facilitate legal traffic."

U.S. relations with Mexico and Canada chilled early in Bush's first term when neither nation backed his decision to invade Iraq. Bilateral disputes festered as the United States focused on events in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Sore spots remain. Mexico still wants to see U.S. immigration changes. The Bush administration suspects al Qaeda agents may be crossing into the United States from the south. Fox has complained about vigilantes hunting and killing Mexican immigrants along the Arizona border.

Some American farmers and businesses object to Mexico's 20 percent tax on soft drinks containing high-fructose corn syrup. And Canada, which snubbed a U.S. offer to be part of a missile defense shield, probably will bring up the long-running dispute over American tariffs on easy-to-saw Canadian lumber.

"We've got a lot to do," said President Bush, who later jumped behind the wheel of a white pickup truck to give Fox and Martin a tour of his ranch in nearby Crawford. "We charged our ministers with the task of figuring out how best to keep these relationships vibrant and strong."

All three leaders were cordial when they met with reporters following their 90-minute conference, although their appearance lacked the folksiness of other foreign leaders' visits to Texas.

"Hola," said President Bush, smiling and offering a hearty handshake to Fox as he stepped out of his limousine at Baylor University. A few minutes earlier, Bush gave Martin a welcome only slightly less effusive.

President Bush is a second-termer and Fox has slightly more than a year left to serve and can't seek re-election. Of the trio, Martin had the most at stake, politically, at the North American confab.

Martin, who leads Canada's tenuous minority government and could face an early election from the opposition party, used part of his time at the podium to press the United States to reopen the border to Canadian beef. Cattle and beef shipments were banned after mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was discovered in an Alberta cow in May 2003.

"We want to pursue agreed approaches based on sound science that will help us avoid the risk of hidden protectionism, as some would advocate, in responding to BSE," Martin said.

When asked whether Canada would reconsider its decision to join the ballistic missile defense system, Martin replied: "On BMD, the file is closed. But our cooperation, in terms of defense, in terms of our borders, in terms of the defense of our common frontiers, is not only very clear, but it is being accentuated."

The agreement, dubbed the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, outlined a common tariff approach to make U.S., Mexican and Canadian products more competitive with imports from China and other nations and blocs. The three leaders also agreed to cooperate more on energy exploration and on combatting terrorism and drug trafficking.

"We are seeking an objective balance between the concerns that we have to do with security and those that have to do with having a good and agile flow of goods and people across the borders," Fox said.

Fox briefly mentioned U.S. immigration policy. President Bush's proposal for a "guest worker" program faces considerable obstacles in Congress, especially from conservatives.

President Bush said he promised Fox that he would continue to press Congress to come up with "commonsense" immigration policy.

"In other words, if this is in place, someone will be able to come and work from Mexico in the United States and be able to go home - back and forth across the border in a legal fashion. That seems to make sense to me," Bush said.

After their meeting, the three took a helicopter ride to Bush's ranch where they were served grilled chicken breasts, fried shrimp, spring vegetables and cheese biscuits.

Later, they walked, three-abreast, down a road. The president's dog, Barney, trailed them.

A Canadian reporter asked Martin how the ranch compared to his farm.

"No snow," Martin replied.

When Martin was asked whether he had invited Mr. Bush to his farm, the Canadian replied: "I certainly would. Right now."

The president replied, "Thank you for the invitation."

By Deb Riechmann

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