- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 25, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to Iraq told the Senate Wednesday that he is well-suited for the job even though he has not served in the Middle East.

Veteran diplomat Christopher Hill faces a fight from some Republicans who argue that his lack of Middle East experience is reason for Obama to reconsider the nomination. Nonetheless, Hill is expected to win approval from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose chairman and top Republican both support him.

Hill’s toughest test probably will come in the full Senate. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., has threatened to use his congressional power to hold up the nomination once it reaches the floor, although it’s not clear that his and other objections would prevail.

Hill is best known for his role in the Bush administration as chief U.S. negotiator in nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea. He has experience in the Balkans but never served in the Middle East; he speaks Polish, Serbo-Croatian and Macedonian.

At the outset of Wednesday’s confirmation hearing, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the committee chairman, asked Hill whether he believed his experience in dealing with North Korea and the Balkan nations was relevant to what he will be expected to accomplish in Baghdad.



Hill said one of the key challenges in Iraq is to strengthen its civilian government structures and to normalize its relations with neighbors and the wider world.

“I’m very familiar with these issues,” Hill said, adding that his experience in those areas is “very relevant to anything I do in Iraq.”

Kerry expressed his full support for Hill.

“He’s the right person for Iraq,” the chairman said.

Hill’s nomination has been in doubt since several Republicans, including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, declared that Hill lacks Middle East diplomatic credentials. They urged Obama to rethink the nomination.

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

But the political tide appeared to swing back in Hill’s favor last week when Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and a widely respected voice on foreign policy matters, threw his public support behind the nominee.

The U.S. ambassador in Baghdad is at the center of a complex campaign to nudge the Iraqis toward greater stability as they prepare for national elections in December and U.S. troops begin to depart in large numbers.

Six years after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq is at a delicate stage of an attempted transition from open warfare to the beginning of political reconciliation and recovery.

Lugar told the committee that Hill’s experience in handling the North Korean nuclear issue as a regional matter involving Japan, South Korea, China and Russia could serve him well in Iraq. Lugar said success in Iraq will increasingly depend on diplomatic factors such as efforts to cultivate more regional cooperation with Iraq _ including with neighbors such as Iran, Syria and Jordan.

Lugar praised Hill for “outstanding diplomatic and managerial skills” and innovative and meticulous work.

The recently departed U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, was among the State Department’s most seasoned and respected Arab specialists. He was ambassador to Pakistan before arriving in Baghdad in March 2007. He also had served in Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon. He was widely credited with creating an unusually effective partnership with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, who has since been promoted to chief of U.S. Central Command. Crocker has retired.

Crocker and the other two previous U.S. ambassadors to Baghdad, John Negroponte and Zalmay Khalilzad, have endorsed Hill’s nomination.

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