updated 3/10/2006 5:24:17 PM ET 2006-03-10T22:24:17

Free trade talks between the United States and the United Arab Emirates were postponed Friday, a day after a Dubai company succumbed to pressure and backed out of a deal to take over operations at six major American ports.

The latest round of negotiations, which were scheduled to start on Monday in the United Arab Emirates, were postponed because both sides need more time to prepare, according to an announcement from the office of U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.

“In order to get an agreement that both sides can successfully implement, we need additional time to prepare for the next round of negotiations,” USTR spokeswoman Neena Moorjani said in a statement.

She refused to say whether the postponement was related to the controversy over port security that engulfed the Bush administration after approval was given for a state-owned UAE company to run some port operations in the United States.

An official of the UAE government said in Dubai that the postponement had nothing to do with the ports controversy.

“This is completely unrelated and entirely a separate issue,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. “There is a short delay which bears no overall implications.”

The UAE official said that working groups from both sides will continue discussions through video and phone conferences.

The state-owned company, DP World, said Thursday that it would transfer operation of the six ports to a U.S. entity. The move came amid a storm of protest in the Republican-controlled Congress.

President Bush, who had strongly supported plans for DP World to operate the ports, said Friday that he was concerned that criticism of the deal would send the wrong message to U.S. allies in the Middle East.

“In order to win the war on terror we have got to strengthen our friendships and relationships with moderate Arab countries in the Middle East,” he said.

Moorjani said that the postponement of the latest round of talks, which had been scheduled to take place in the United Arab Emirates, was not unusual.

She noted that in just the past few months, free trade talks with Ecuador had been postponed three different times, talks with Panama had been postponed twice and a round of scheduled negotiations with Colombia had also been postponed.

Moorjani said that both the United States and the UAE remain “strongly committed” to making progress in the negotiations on a free trade agreement. Those talks were launched in late 2004.

The administration has aggressively pursued free trade deals to lower trade barriers to U.S. exports and to support U.S. foreign policy goals.

The administration is seeking free trade agreements with a number of Middle Eastern countries in hopes that opening up the world’s largest economy to unrestricted trade with those nations will provide economic support for a movement toward greater democracy in the region.

In the region, the United States has free trade agreements with Israel and the Arab nations of Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco. An agreement with Oman was reached in October but it has not been approved yet by Congress.

Bush has set a goal of ultimately creating a Middle East-wide free trade area.

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