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Rice to soothe fears over ports row on UAE visit

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RIYADH, Feb 23 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will seek to soothe fears of US hostility over a ports deal on a visit to the United Arab Emirates today.

Rice's trip to Abu Dhabi was scheduled before a political row erupted in Washington over the sale to an Emirates-backed company of operations at six major U.S. ports.

However, Rice stressed on the eve of her visit for a regional conference that the Gulf state was a trusted ally in the U.S. war against terrorism in spite of American lawmakers' concerns that the deal could be a threat to national security.

''It has been a stalwart partner. And we believe that this is a deal, a port deal, that serves the interests of the United States, serves our security interests and serves the commercial interest as well,'' she said at a news conference in Saudi Arabia on her Middle East tour.

Senior US officials travelling with Rice said they expected the UAE to seek explanations about the debate in Washington, but doubted it would affect ties because the Bush administration had backed the deal.

''They probably feel unfairly treated,'' one official said.

''(But) the issue is not going to be troublesome, since it is a different branch of government (raising objections).'' The United States is in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement with the UAE -- its third largest trading partner in the Middle East after Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The political backlash over the sale of British-based P&O to Dubai Ports World, including among top lawmakers in President George W. Bush's Republican party, has sparked complaints in the Middle East of anti-Arab sentiment.

Rice sought to ease those concerns.

''We shouldn't want to turn down a deal of this kind just because it happens to originate in the Middle East,'' she said.

Like Bush, Rice has repeatedly backed the decision to allow Dubai Ports World to take over operations in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Miami.

US officials say the UAE is a staunch ally in the war against terrorism and has worked hard to close the loopholes that allowed Sept. 11 conspirators to use the Gulf state as an important logistics hub and conduit for funds.

Rice was not expected to visit Dubai, the emirate at the centre of the controversy.

Reuters PDS VP0725

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