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US Senate confirms Hill as Iraq ambassador

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) April 21, 2009
The US Senate on Tuesday easily confirmed veteran diplomat Christopher Hill to be ambassador to Baghdad after weeks of bitter debate over his handling of the six-country nuclear talks with North Korea.

Senators voted 73-23 to approve President Barack Obama's choice for one of the most sensitive US diplomatic posts, in which Hill will help manage the withdrawal of all US forces from war-torn Iraq by the end of 2011.

Supporters said Hill's experience with multilateral diplomacy on North Korea and sectarian tensions in the Balkans would serve him well as he worked to soothe relations between Iraq and its neighbors and dampen internal strife.

"He has a great deal of experience with the skills that matter the most for the resolution of remaining issues in Iraq," said Democratic Senator John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"We need an ambassador in Iraq. We need this ambassador in Iraq. This should not be a controversial nomination," Kerry said minutes before the vote.

Critics cited his lack of Middle East experience and noted that Hill does not speak Arabic, while a knot of hardliners assailed his handling of the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

His leading foe, Republican Senator Sam Brownback, accused Hill of ignoring Pyongyang's human rights abuses and of crafting a deeply flawed agreement on scrapping the Stalinist state's nuclear programs.

"The deeds of ambassador Hill on North Korea: No progress on human rights, terrible deal, failed diplomacy," Brownback said in his final speech before the confirmation vote.

"The only thing dismantled in the six-party talks was our strategic deterrence and moral authority," charged the Kansas senator, who has authored legislation to return North Korea to a US terrorism blacklist.

Opposition to Hill shrank markedly when the commander of US forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, and the commander of US forces in the entire region, General David Petraeus, indicated they supported his nomination.

Hill also won the heavyweight support of his widely admired predecessor in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, who left the post earlier this year.

Hill now inherits the diplomatic dossier in Iraq six years after the March 2003 US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, and one year after stunning but fragile security gains partly built on a US troop "surge."

At a confirmation hearing in late March, Hill said Iraq was now in "a crucial phase" and declared: "I just don't want to screw it up."

Hill said his top priorities in Iraq would be helping carry out successful parliamentary elections, pass a long-delayed law on oil revenue-sharing, and improve relations between Baghdad and the countries around it.

"The real problem in the region for Iraq remains its ancient neighbor, Iran," Hill said, adding: "We believe, and the Iraqis definitely believe, that Iran needs to respect Iraqi sovereignty."

Beaten on the Hill nomination, Brownback said support was growing for his bill to return North Korea to a state sponsors of terrorism blacklist from which it was removed, and attendant sanctions dropped, in October 2008.

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