The White House is attempting to placate members of Congress angered over plans to let a Dubai company run several major US ports, with a top administration official saying that a delay in the deal might be possible.
Just days after US President George W. Bush threw down the gauntlet and vowed to veto any bill in Congress that could delay the transaction, senior Bush adviser Karl Rove said in a radio interview that the president might consider a postponement after all.
"Look, there are some hurdles, regulatory hurdles ... that are going to be concluded next week. There's no requirement that it close, you know, immediately after that," Rove told Fox News Radio.
Meanwhile, US television reported the company has agreed to postpone its plans to take over management of six US ports.
CNN quoted Ted Bilkey, chief operating officer for Dubai Ports World as saying in a statement that Dubai Ports World will delay taking over management of the ports "while it engages in further consultations with the Bush administration and, as appropriate, congressional leadership and relevant port authorities to address concerns over future security arrangements."
The conciliatory words came as officials from a dozen federal agencies took part in a US Senate briefing on plans for Dubai Ports World to acquire a British firm which currently manages the six US ports.
US Senator Chuck Schumer welcomed the Bush administration's olive branch.
"A small delay is an excellent idea and would give a chance for a solution amiable to all sides to follow," the New York Democrat said in a statement.
The parade of officials on Capitol Hill sought to allay lawmakers' outrage at not having been notified in advance about the plan, which they said could leave the US exposed to future acts of terror.
The administration has found few congressional allies in the controversy which analysts said could lead not only to the first veto of the Bush presidency, but to an almost certain override by Congress -- potentially a major setback for the president.
Administration witnesses testified that the UAE has been a stalwart ally in the US-led war on terror, and was worthy of being trusted to manage US seaports, but Senator Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the committee, deemed Dubai's record to be lacking.
"The UAE was apparently one of only a handful of countries in the world to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, whose support of Osama bin Laden and al-Qeda led to the events of 9/11," Levin said, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
"Millions of dollars in al-Qaeda funds went through UAE financial institutions," Levin said.
US Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England told lawmakers however that the fears have been overblown, assuring them the UAE is "a friend and an ally of the United States."
He added that the vetting process for the deal "was not cursory and was not casual," but rather was "in-depth and comprehensive" and expressed concern that the outcry over the sale would be perceived as "paranoid and isolationist."
President Bush said on Thursday that an improved flow of information with members of Congress likely would help to dispel doubts.
"The more people learn about the transaction that has been scrutinized and approved by my government, the more they'll be comforted that our ports will be secure," Bush told reporters as he met with his cabinet.
"We will continue to talk to people in Congress and explain clearly why the decision was made," Bush said.
The White House also stressed that security at the ports will still fall to the US Coast Guard, US Customs, and US Border Patrol.
Unless delayed or blocked, the transaction is to be finalized on Thursday, and the ports affected are in New York; Miami; Newark, New Jersey; Baltimore, Maryland; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, Dubai Ports World has undertaken its own public relations offensive, hiring former US Senator Bob Dole to help salvage the US$6.8 billion deal, according to media reports.
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