WASHINGTON (AP) - With barely 20 days left in a
20-year countdown to turn over control of the Panama
 Canal, opponents are undertaking a final effort to
protect U.S. interests in the waterway.

 They insist it will fall under Chinese rather than
Panamanian control.

 A federal court suit, a petition by members of
Congress and anti-turnover speeches and seminars are
 questioning transfer of the 85-year-old
American-built waterway to Panama, scheduled for noon
Dec. 31.

 A ceremonial turnover is scheduled Tuesday in Panama
City - two weeks early to avoid conflicts with
 millennium celebrations.

 The furor is fueled in part by concern over China and
in part by regret among conservatives over loss of the
 vital link between the Pacific and Atlantic, heavily
used by U.S. commercial and military ships.

 The Clinton administration says the transfer of the
canal to Panama was the right thing to do and is a
 deal that has nothing to do with China.

 ``I feel comfortable that our commercial and security
interests can be protected under this arrangement,''
 President Clinton said last week. He retracted his
own earlier statement that China would be running the
 as erroneous.

 The fear of Chinese control is being voiced by
several members of Congress and by top former military
 officers affiliated with the National Security
Center, a conservative advocacy group which also
opposes U.N.
 influence over the U.S. military.

 It is based largely on the fact that a subsidiary of
a Hong Kong-base company, Hutchison Whampoa Ltd.,
 operates port concessions at both ends of the canal.
The company denies it is controlled in any way by the
 Chinese government or military.

 ``It appears we have given away the farm,'' said
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who raised
questions on
 the canal takeover with Defense Secretary William
Cohen last summer.

 ``U.S. naval ships will be at the mercy of
Chinese-controlled pilots and could even be denied
passage,'' Lott
 said in a letter to Cohen.

 Hutchison's port facilities, however, compete with a
much larger American-owned operation and another
 operated, ironically, by a Taiwanese company. Unlike
the United States, Panama has diplomatic relations
 with Taipei rather than Beijing.

 A top concern among critics is the pullout of all
U.S. troops from the Caribbean country at the end of
 operation and ownership of the canal.

 Retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the
Joint Chiefs, called the loss and the specter of a
 Chinese takeover ``the greatest threat that exists
worldwide to the United States today.

 ``Not only are we turning over control of the Canal,
but we are providing a launching point for missiles
 against the United States,'' Moorer said at the
second of two days of special congressional hearings
last week.

 The sparsely attended hearings were called despite
the congressional recess by Rep. Spencer Bachus,
 chairman of the House Banking subcommittee on
domestic and international monetary policy.

 Bachus joined in a petition by two dozen House
members urging Clinton to declare that treaties give
 United States the right to maintain a presence in the

 Bachus accused the administration of a ``see-no-evil,
hear-no-evil approach'' to the danger of a Chinese
 takeover. Another concern, he said, is the economic
impact of the canal turnover on U.S. interests.

 ``Control of the canal and our being able to rely on
that canal for uninterrupted commerce is absolutely
 essential to our commercial and financial well
being,'' he said.

 Other than holding hearings, however, Congress has
made no serious move to stop the turnover. A House
 bill declaring the treaty null and void never got to
the floor before members went home for the year-end

 With no chance that Congress will stop the turnover,
opponents are pursuing a federal court suit, filed in
 October with little public fanfare. It questions
legality of the turnover and seeks a temporary
restraining order
 to prevent the canal from being transferred.

 Revisions of the suit are planned to include more
issues and more defendants in a call for a full
 injunction to halt the turnover.

 ``We have many supporters who don't believe the canal
should be turned over to Panamanians under these
 circumstances,'' said Larry Klayman, head of Judicial
Watch, a conservative group which has filed numerous
 suits against the Clinton administration over the

 Both Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright have backed out of attending Tuesday's
 turnover, and no top U.S. officials plan to be in
Panama Dec. 31.

 Critics say it's because they don't want to be
identified with losing the canal, but administration
officials deny
 this and say they are confident its turnover and
future operations will go smoothly.

 Clinton rejected diplomatic advice in turning down an
invitation from Panamanian President Mireya
 Moscoso and Albright canceled because of Mideast
peace talks this week in Washington.

 Former President Carter, who signed the turnover
agreement in 1978 is set to attend, as are some canal
 turnover critics. 

Pedro M. Calmon
PO BOX 2248
Thibodaux, LA 70310
PHONE (504)449-1682
FAX   (209)755-5642
ICQ: 48463895
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