U.S. Senate confirms Chris Hill as Iraq envoy

WASHINGTON Tue Apr 21, 2009 6:07pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed President Barack Obama's pick to be U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, after debate over whether he mismanaged international disarmament talks with North Korea.

Hill, a veteran diplomat, won confirmation in a 73-23 vote.

Obama's Democratic colleagues complained Republicans had used Senate rules to stall the vote for weeks when Hill should have been rushed to Baghdad to help manage the president's troop drawdown.

"We will have just delayed and diddled, and who knows what opportunity will have been lost," said Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Hill's critics said he lacked Middle East experience and mishandled multilateral talks with North Korea aimed at scrapping its nuclear program as the Bush administration drew to a close.

Republican Senator Sam Brownback questioned how those talks could be called successful since Pyongyang announced this month it would quit them and restart a plant that makes weapons-grade plutonium. He also charged that Hill had turned a blind eye to human rights issues during the talks.

"We should not put the individual that negotiated this bad deal and ignored that terrible situation into our best and most important post around the world," Brownback said.

Republican Senator John McCain rapped Hill's lack of Middle East experience, saying that "our next ambassador must hit the ground running" in Iraq and Hill was not ready.

Hill's defenders said he had proven in the North Korea talks and in the 1995 Dayton Peace negotiations that ended the Bosnian war that he had skills for the Iraq post.

Those included "the ability to achieve our objectives in a complex, challenging, sectarian, volatile, complicated environment," Kerry said.

Hill was approved by Kerry's committee on March 31 but Republican opponents blocked a vote until this week when Congress returned from a two-week recess.

Brownback also proposed legislation to return North Korea to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Washington took Pyongyang off the list last October as a reward for steps North Korea had taken during the talks on denuclearization.

Hill, who has been serving as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, is also a former ambassador to Poland, Macedonia and South Korea. He pledged to go to Baghdad within a day of his confirmation.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell, editing by Vicki Allen)

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