Washington, Feb 22 2006
Agence Press France
US President George W. Bush on Wednesday faced a split with key congressional allies after he backed a deal that will put an Arab company in charge of operations at six major US ports and threatened to veto congressional measure threatening it.
Weighing in after a long silence on a topic that has roiled Washington for several days, Bush made his veto threat after top US lawmakers vowed to block the contract until a thorough vetting of United Arab Emirates ports operator Dubai Ports World has been completed.
“The transaction should go forward in my judgment,” said Bush told reporters.
“If there were any chance that this transaction would jeopardize the security of the United States, it would not go forward,” he added.
Unless US lawmakers prevent it, Dubai Ports World’s acquisition of the British firm which currently manages the ports is to be finalized on March 2.
Ports affected by the deal are in New York; Miami; New Jersey; Baltimore, Maryland; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Bush suggested that going back on the arrangement would be viewed dimly by US allies in the Middle East, given that the ports for years have been operated by another foreign company — Britain’s Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co (P and O).
“I think it sends a terrible signal to friends around the world,” the president said.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld praised the United Arab Emirates as “a very, very solid partner in our workings in the Gulf.”
But Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey said he believed the Senate would be able to muster the 67 votes needed to override a Bush veto.
The administration’s endorsement of the UAE deal put it at odds with a nearly unified bloc of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who held a succession of press conferences and statements Tuesday condemning the deal. Many criticized what they describe as the UAE’s spotty record on combating terror.
Even erstwhile staunch Bush allies complained that the administration did not consult with lawmakers before allowing the sale to proceed.
“This White House did nothing to communicate with Congress about this deal,” Republican Representative Curt Weldon told CNN television on Tuesday. “We’re not going to allow this to happen.”
Arab-American groups suggested that the controversy smacks of racism. The *American-Arab Anti-Discrimination* Committee issued a statement charging “rhetoric and bias” during the debate.
“Those who purport that ports can be run securely by a British company, but not by an Arab one, are engaging in racial profiling on the corporate level,” the group said.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a staunch Republican, said the contract raised “serious questions regarding the safety and security of our homeland.”
“The decision to finalize this deal should be put on hold until the administration conducts a more extensive review,” Frist said in a statement, adding that the deal could have “a major impact on America’s security.”
And the most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, wrote to the White House calling for an “immediate moratorium” delaying the contract.
The US business community also has joined the debate: the Miami, Florida-based Continental Stevedoring and Terminals Inc. — an affiliate of P and O — complained in a court filing that the takeover would force it to become an “involuntary partner” with Dubai’s government and “may endanger the national security of the United States.”
New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine said his state will file lawsuits to keep the Newark port out of Dubai’s hands. The mayor of Miami, Florida, issued a similar threat.
Washington, Feb 22 2006