US lawmakers bid to stop ports takeover by Middle East firm

US SENATE Republican Leader Bill Frist yesterday called for the Bush administration to stop a deal permitting a United Arab Emirates company to take over six American seaports, upping the ante on a fight that several congressmen, governors and mayors are waging with the White House.

“If the administration cannot delay this process, I plan on introducing legislation to ensure that the deal is placed on hold until this decision gets a more thorough review,” he said.

In the uneasy climate after the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration decision to allow the transaction could become a major political headache for the White House.

Mr Frist spoke as both Republican and Democrat lawmakers said they would offer emergency legislation to block the deal ahead of the March 2 takeover.

Mr Frist’s move comes after two Republican governors, New York’s George Pataki and Maryland’s Robert Ehrlich, voiced doubts about the acquisition of a British company that has been running six US ports by Dubai Ports World, a state-owned firm in the United Arab Emirates.

P&O has major commercial operations at ports in Baltimore, Miami, New Jersey, New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia.

Both governors indicated they may try to cancel lease arrangements at ports in their states because of the DP World takeover.

Mr Patakis said: “I have directed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to explore all legal options.”

Mr Ehrlich, concerned about security at the Port of Baltimore, said on Monday he was “very troubled” that Maryland officials got no advance notice before the Bush administration approved the takeover of the operations at the six ports.

“We needed to know before this was a done deal, given the state of where we are concerning security,” he said.

The arrangement brought protests in Congress and a lawsuit in Florida from a company affected by the takeover.

Public fears that the nation’s ports are not properly protected, combined with the news of an Arab country’s takeover of six major ports, proved a combustible mix.

Critics have noted that some of the 9/11 hijackers used the UAE as an operational and financial base. In addition, they contend the UAE was an important transfer point for shipments of smuggled nuclear components sent to Iran, North Korea and Libya by a Pakistani scientist.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the administration made certain the company agreed to certain conditions to ensure national security. He said details of those agreements were secret.

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