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US Republican leaders seek port compromise

By Staff
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WASHINGTON, Feb 26 (Reuters) Republicans were in talks on Saturday about reopening the government review of an Arab state-owned company's purchase of terminals at key US ports in a bid to fend off critics who say the deal could harm national security.

US House and Senate Republican leaders were yesterday discussing asking the company, Dubai Ports World, to seek a 45-day review of security concerns from the White House, Republican congressional officials told Reuters.

US Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had already advised the company to ask for the review and had suggested to the White House it should ''look favorably on the request'' to help ''head off legislation that could scuttle the deal,'' one of the congressional officials said.

The New York Times reported that White House officials were in direct negotiations with DP World about reopening the security review late on Saturday. A White House spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

President George W Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said as recently as Friday afternoon there were no plans to reopen the review of the 6.8 billion dollars deal in which DP World would acquire the British company P&O and with it terminal port operations in the United States.

Democrats and some members of Bush's own Republican Party have hammered the administration for approving the acquisition, citing evidence that two of the September 11 hijackers came from the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, and that al Qaeda funding went via UAE banks.

Lawmakers in both parties have been planning legislation to block the deal. Bush has vowed to veto any legislation aimed at scuttling the deal and has described the United Arab Emirates as a critical partner in combating terrorism.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an interagency panel led by the US Treasury Department that examines national security implications of foreign takeovers of US assets, approved the transaction last month after getting a handful of security assurances from DP World.

'CASUAL ABOUT OUR SECURITY' New Jersey Gov Jon Corzine, in the Democratic weekly radio address on Saturday, accused the administration of being casual with national security and urged a tougher review.

''We cannot afford to let this administration be stubborn in their mistakes and casual about our security,'' he said.

DP World said this week it would proceed with the takeover of the British P&O company -- making it the world's third- largest port operator -- but not the management of the US port terminals while it discusses security concerns.

''But what we need is not a token delay, but a serious review,'' Corzine said. Already lawsuits have been filed to block the deal, including by the state of New Jersey, which is concerned about its Port Newark terminal.

Bush and members of his administration have defended its review as thorough but the White House has admitted Congress should have been briefed sooner. At least three congressional hearings are set for next week.

Republicans have seen national security as a winning political issue, particularly before the November midterm elections. Democrats have seized on the ports issue to raise doubts about his ability to keep America safe.

A Rasmussen Reports poll showed that Democrats in Congress had edged ahead of Bush, 43 per cent to 41 per cent, when it came to who Americans trust more on national security issues.

DP World's Senior Vice President Michael Moore told Reuters on Friday the company would consider additional security guarantees if requested. The company already made some assurances such as participating in cargo inspection programs.

REUTERS PR BS1055

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