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French Version

Rice assures U.A.E. on ports deal

dubai firm says it will delay takeover of terminals

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told leaders of the United Arab Emirates that the U.S. government had no doubts about the takeover of six U.S. ports by an Emirates-owned company, a State Department spokesman said.

Rice discussed the purchase of the commercial operations in the six ports when she met the prime minister, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, and the crown prince, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed, shortly after arriving in the United Arab Emirates on Thursday evening, the spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. congressional opposition to the takeover has led the buyer, state-owned Dubai Ports World, to offer to delay exercising control over the ports to give President George W. Bush more time to convince lawmakers that the move poses no security risks.

The lawmakers have accused the U.A.E. of being soft on terrorism, citing the fact that funds for the September 11, 2001, hijackers passed through its territory.

The spokesman said little about Rice's talks with the U.A.E. leaders except that she praised the country as a strong U.S. ally and said the Bush administration was confident of its approval of the purchase. Later Rice met foreign ministers of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states in Abu Dhabi.

In a written statement released late Thursday, the state-owned Dubai Ports World said it will not assume control of the terminals until U.S. lawmakers have time to study the deal.

"The reaction in the United States has occurred in no other country in the world," DP World chief operating officer Ted Bilkey said in the statement. "We need to understand the concerns of the people in the U.S. who are worried about this transaction and make sure that they are address to the benefit of all parties. Security is everybody's business."

The company statement came hours after Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove said in a radio interview that President George W. Bush, who has vowed to veto any move by lawmakers to block the deal, might consider a postponement after all.

"Look, there are some hurdles, regulatory hurdles ... that are going to be concluded next week. There's no requirement that it close, you know, immediately after that," Rove told Fox News Radio.

The conciliatory words came as officials from a dozen federal agencies took part in a U.S. Senate briefing on plans for DP World to acquire the British firm P&O, which currently manages the six U.S. ports.

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer welcomed the Bush administration's olive branch.

"A small delay is an excellent idea and would give a chance for a solution amiable to all sides to follow," the New York Democrat said in a statement.

The parade of officials on Capitol Hill sought to allay lawmakers' outrage at not having been notified in advance about the plan, which they said could leave America exposed to future acts of terror.

The U.S. administration has found few congressional allies in the controversy which analysts said could lead not only to the first veto of the Bush presidency, but to an almost certain override by Congress - potentially a major setback for the president.

Administration officials testified that the U.A.E. has been a stalwart ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, and was worthy of being trusted to manage U.S. seaports, but Senator Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the committee, deemed Dubai's record to be lacking.

"The U.A.E. was apparently one of only a handful of countries in the world to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, whose support of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda led to the events of 9/11," Levin said, referring to the September 11 terror attacks.

"Millions of dollars in Al-Qaeda funds went through U.A.E. financial institutions," Levin said.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England told lawmakers however that the fears have been overblown; assuring them the U.A.E. is "a friend and an ally of the United States."

He added that the vetting process for the deal "was not cursory and was not casual," but rather was "in-depth and comprehensive" and expressed concern that the outcry over the sale would be perceived as "paranoid and isolationist."

Dubai,02 28 2006
The Daily Star
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