- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Veteran diplomat Christopher Hill on Tuesday won the support of Republican Sen. Richard Lugar to become the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq, even as other GOP senators bluntly urged President Barack Obama to withdraw the nomination.

Lugar’s backing is considered crucial to Hill’s nomination because it would provide other moderate GOP senators political cover to vote for him. Indiana’s Lugar is the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and widely respected on foreign policy matters.

A confirmation hearing was planned for March 25.

Also in Hill’s corner are former Iraq ambassadors Ryan Crocker, Zalmay Khalilzad and John Negroponte. The three wrote a letter supporting Hill for the post and urging the Senate to approve his nomination.

“We need his experience during this crucial time in Iraq,” they wrote in the letter obtained by The Associated Press. “His previous experiences will serve him greatly when addressing extreme challenges in Iraq.”

Two administration officials said Tuesday they were counting on Lugar’s support for Hill to overcome Republican opposition and secure the 60 votes that would ensure his confirmation. The Senate is divided, with Democrats typically able to count on 58 votes at most. The officials spoke anonymously because Hill was meeting with GOP senators on Tuesday.

Hill’s nomination has been in trouble since last week, when several Republicans, including Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, warned that Hill, a career diplomat, lacked enough experience in the Middle East.

Hill is best known for his role in the Bush administration as chief U.S. negotiator in disarmament talks with North Korea. The negotiations stalled on a technical issue and GOP critics said Hill was too willing to make concessions to the Communist regime.

Hill met privately on Tuesday with several senators, including Lugar, McCain and Brownback. McCain had no immediate comment after the meeting.

Brownback has been the most outspoken opponent of Hill because of a long-running dispute over how to handle human rights abuses by the North Koreans.

Following his Tuesday meeting with Hill, Brownback said he remained unmoved. Brownback contends that Hill deliberately misled him when he promised in July 2008 congressional testimony that he would invite North Korea special envoy Jay Lefkowitz to future disarmament talks.

Official talks stalled before he could do so, but Brownback contends that meetings were still held and Lefkowitz was not part of them.

Brownback circulated a letter among his colleagues asking Obama to pull the nomination. Among those who signed the letter were Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, and Sens. John Ensign of Nevada, James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Christopher Bond of Missouri.

Other Republican critics, including McCain, have focused on what they say is a lack of expertise on issues facing Iraq.

On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton dismissed that argument as baseless, pointing out that Negroponte, who served as Iraq ambassador during the Bush administration, did not have direct experience in the Middle East or Arabic language skills when he took the job.

McCain and the other GOP senators opposing Hill had supported Negroponte’s confirmation in a 95-3 vote.

Clinton also defended Hill’s handling of the six-party talks with North Korea.

“It is our perspective that he made a lot of lemonade out of some pretty bad lemons, and he was able to get the North Koreans on record as agreeing to certain obligations,” Clinton told reporters. “We now have to follow through on those obligations.”


Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

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