OSLO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for offering the world hope and striving for nuclear disarmament in a surprise award that drew both warm praise and sharp criticism.
The bestowal of one of the world’s top accolades on a president less than nine months in office, who has yet to score a major foreign policy success, was greeted with gasps of astonishment from journalists at the announcement in Oslo.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee praised Obama for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”
Critics -- some in parts of the Arab and Muslim world -- called the committee decision premature.
Obama’s press secretary woke him with the news before dawn and the president felt “humbled” by the award, a senior administration official said.
When told in an email from Reuters that many people around the world were stunned by the announcement, Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, responded: “As are we.”
The first African-American to hold his country’s highest office, Obama, 48, has called for disarmament and worked to restart stalled Middle East peace moves since taking office in January.
“Very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the committee said in a citation.
Despite problems at home that include high unemployment, the U.S. president is still widely seen around the world as an inspirational figure.
Obama laid out his vision on eliminating nuclear arms in a speech in Prague in April. But he was not the first American president to set that goal, and acknowledged it might not be reached in his lifetime.
Obama was to make a statement in the White House Rose Garden at 10:30 a.m. EDT (1430 GMT). The president, struggling at home with high unemployment and resistance in Congress to his healthcare reform plans, is likely to go to Oslo to receive the prize, Axelrod told the MSNBC TV channel.
While the award won praise from such statesmen as Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev, both Nobel laureates, it was also attacked in some quarters as hasty and undeserved.
Afghanistan’s Taliban mocked the award, saying Obama should get a Nobel prize for violence instead.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said it was absurd to give a peace award to a man who had sent 21,000 extra troops to Afghanistan to escalate a war.
“The Nobel prize for peace? Obama should have won the ‘Nobel Prize for escalating violence and killing civilians’,” he told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Obama is considering a request from his top commander in Afghanistan to send him at least 40,000 more troops.
The Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and opposes a peace treaty with Israel, said the award was premature at best.
Obama is the fourth U.S. president to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after Jimmy Carter won in 2002, Woodrow Wilson picked it up in 1919 and Theodore Roosevelt was chosen for the 1906 prize.
Issam al-Khazraji, a day laborer in Baghdad, said of Obama: “He doesn’t deserve this prize. All these problems -- Iraq, Afghanistan -- have not been solved . . . man of ‘change’ hasn’t changed anything yet.”
Liaqat Baluch, a senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a conservative religious party in Pakistan, called the award an embarrassing “joke”.
But the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, welcomed it and expressed hope that Obama “will be able to achieve peace in the Middle East.”
Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland rejected suggestions from journalists that Obama was getting the prize too early, saying it recognized what he had already done over the past year.
“We hope this can contribute a little bit to enhance what he is trying to do,” he told a news conference.
The committee said it attached “special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons”, saying he had “created a new climate in international politics”.
Without naming Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush, it highlighted the differences in America’s engagement with the rest of the world since the change of administration in January.
“Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play.
“Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts,” it said, and the United States was playing a more constructive role in tackling climate change.
Obama is negotiating arms cuts with Russia, and last month dropped plans to base elements of a U.S. anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Moscow had seen the scheme as a threat, despite U.S. assurances it was directed against Iran.
On other pressing issues, Obama is deliberating whether to send more troops to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, and is still searching for breakthroughs on Iran’s disputed nuclear program and on Middle East peace.
Israel’s foreign minister said on Thursday there was no chance of a peace deal for many years.
Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who had been tipped as a favorite for the prize, told Reuters that Obama was a deserving candidate and an “extraordinary example”.
Obama’s uncle Said Obama told Reuters by telephone from the president’s ancestral village of Kogelo in western Kenya: “It is humbling for us as a family and we share in Barack’s honor... we congratulate him.”
The prize worth 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.4 million) will be handed out in Oslo on Dec. 10.
Additional reporting by Oslo newsroom, Kamran Haider in Pakistan, Mohammed Assadi, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Mark Denge in Nairobi, Jason Webb in Spain; Writing by Alistair Bell, Editing by Howard Goller
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