- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2012

President Obama’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Iraq impressed Republican senators in a confirmation hearing this week, but his key critic, Sen. John McCain, remains skeptical of his ability to handle America’s biggest and most-expensive embassy.

Brett McGurk, a 39-year-old lawyer and former senior adviser on Iraq for Mr. Obama and former President George W. Bush, has never been an ambassador but has served all five U.S. envoys to Iraq since U.S.-led forces overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

At the hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Sens. James E. Risch of Idaho and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana seemed impressed by Mr. McGurk’s answers to their questions about the cost and size of the embassy.

“I don’t think anyone can question your knowledge and understanding of what’s happened in Iraq,” Mr. Risch said.

Mr. Risch, a former governor, noted that the embassy has a larger budget than Idaho. The United States spent $6.5 billion on the embassy last year, and has budgeted $4 billion for this year. The embassy has a staff of 16,000, mostly contractors.

Mr. Lugar said the embassy is “very insecure” now that U.S. combat troops have left Iraq.

“It is so huge,” he said of the diplomatic mission.

Mr. McGurk said he endorsed State Department plans to cut the size of the staff by 25 percent. “Quite frankly, our presence in Iraq right now is too large,” he said.

Mr. McCain, however, has criticized Mr. McGurk, citing “grave concerns” about his “qualifications and his positions on issues.”

“He’s not my choice,” the Arizona Republican told reporters earlier this week.

Although he is not a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. McCain commands considerable clout in the Senate as the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

He chastised Mr. McGurk for failing to reach a deal with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to allow some U.S. troops to stay in Iraq past 2011. Mr. McGurk led talks with Mr. Maliki, but the Obama administration refused Mr. Maliki’s demand that U.S. troops be subject to Iraqi law.

Some observers on Capitol Hill suspect Mr. McCain might try to block full Senate confirmation of Mr. McGurk’s nomination.

In his testimony, Mr. McGurk warned of a “deep” divide between Iraq’s Shiite majority and Sunni minority. The rival Muslim sects “fear and distrust” each other, and “political discourse” is dominated by “score-settling” from earlier conflicts, he said.


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