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Bush knew of ports deal after completion-W.House

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WASHINGTON, Feb 22 (Reuters) The White House sought to distance itself today from the administration's approval of an Arab company's takeover of operations at major US ports, a day after President George W Bush vowed to veto any legislation to block the deal.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president was not aware of the pending deal until it was approved and had become public but then checked with Cabinet secretaries to make sure they stood by their approval of the plan by state-controlled Dubai Ports World to manage six ports.

Bush held a rare news conference on Air Force One yesterday to say the deal should go forward despite lawmakers concerns it posed security risks and said he would veto legislation aimed at stopping it.

''He made sure to check with them (the Cabinet) even after this got more attention from the press, to make sure they were comfortable with the decision that was made. Every one of the Cabinet secretaries expressed that they were comfortable with this transaction being approved,'' McClellan said.

McClellan said the president'' became aware of it over the last several days.'' Asked if Bush did not know about the ports deal until it was a ''done deal,'' he said, ''That's correct.'' The question of whether state-controlled Dubai Ports World of the United Arab Emirates should be allowed to control the ports has sparked a political storm for Bush at a time when he is struggling to boost sagging public approval ratings.

The White House continued a spirited defense of the deal, which has drawn sharp criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill and vows to block the deal.

McClellan said to not go forward with the deal would send a ''terrible message'' because it would hold a Middle Eastern company to a different standard than a British company and because the United Arab Emirates has been a strong partner in the war on terrorism.

Rejecting the deal, he said, could have consequences.

''You have to take into account the broader foreign policy implications,'' he said. ''We should be working to broaden our partnership in the broader war on terrorism.'' Concerns about the vulnerability of US ports have grown since the September 11 attacks.

REUTERS SRS HS2220

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