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Oman trade pact bad for US security -lawmakers

Oman trade pact bad for US security -lawmakers

Tue Jul 18, 2006

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Congressional opponents of a free-trade pact with Oman raised concerns on Tuesday about provisions they said could jeopardize U.S. port security, but other lawmakers said they were misstating the facts.

The exchange came as the House of Representatives was set to vote on Thursday on the agreement. The Senate approved the trade pact with the Gulf Arab state last month 60-34.

Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat who serves on the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, said the pact would allow companies such as Dubai Ports World to acquire U.S. port operations by establishing a shell company in Oman.

"If Dubai Ports World set up in Oman and then attempts to acquire a U.S. port operation and Congress intervenes ... (the Oman-U.S. Free Trade Agreement) would empower Dubai Ports World to drag the United States before UN or World Bank tribunals to demand we compensate the firm" for lost profits, Murtha said.

Dubai Ports World, based in Oman’s neighbor the United Arab Emirates, had to abandon its planned purchase of terminal operation rights at major U.S. ports earlier this year after it ignited a political firestorm in the United States.

Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, and three Democratic House members joined Murtha at a news conference to express concern about the Omani agreement. The five lawmakers have a history of voting against free trade agreements on the grounds that they cost American jobs.

"It’s bad enough that we’re asked to support agreements that would shift more jobs overseas ... but it is simply unacceptable to ask Congress to support legislation that would essentially undermine the security of our nation," said Rep. Michael Michaud, a Maine Democrat.

In the days leading up to vote, many members are being persuaded by the ports issue to oppose the pact, Michaud said.

Supporters of the Oman trade agreement called the issue raised by Murtha and the other lawmakers a "red herring."

The pact still allows the United States to block proposed transactions it believes are a threat to national security, Rep. Phil English, a Pennsylvania Republican, and two other lawmakers said in a letter to House colleagues.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office acknowledged the Oman pact could allow an Omani company to perform such "landside" port functions as operation and maintenance of docks, loading and unloading of vessels and ship cleaning.

But all U.S. trade agreements include an "essential security" article that allows the president to block any business deal the United States believes raises security concerns, according to a USTR fact sheet.

The Congressional Research Service also said on Tuesday it was unlikely Dubai Ports World or any company would be able to establish a shell company in Oman under the pact in order to acquire U.S. port operations.

 source: Reuters