(RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Senate has overwhelmingly confirmed Christopher Hill as Washington’s new ambassador to Baghdad.
The vote of 73-23 on April 21 put an end to weeks of uncertainty that began with some legislators criticizing his initial approval for the job by a Senate committee late last month.
The critics claimed Hill did not have the level of skill needed for what will be one of Washington’s toughest challenges in the coming months -- the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
As ambassador, Hill will help manage the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. The trick will be to do so while leaving behind a stable and secure country -- a challenge that will require all the finesse any diplomat can muster.
Hill himself acknowledged the scope of the challenge at his confirmation hearing on March 25.
"I think the task of withdrawing forces, of drawing down forces, is always -- or tends to be -- more difficult than the task of flowing in forces," Hill said. "That is, when forces come in, they bring everything with them. And what we need to do, as our forces leave, is that there are some things we want them to take with them -- that is, a sense of mission accomplishments. And that is very important. But some things we want to leave behind, and that is a sense of security within the country."
Hill’s most recent job has been handling the six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program.
The six-party talks between the two Koreas, the United States, Russia, China, and Japan are the international community’s main hope of disarming Pyongyang -- which is believed to have several nuclear weapons -- in exchange for economic and trade incentives.
Hill’s critics questioned whether the talks constitute enough of a success to recommend him for another extremely difficult assignment.
The talks, which have had an on-again, off-again progress, have currently broken down following North Korea’s launch of a long-range missile on April 5.
Pyongyang withdrew from the talks after the Security Council condemned the launch. North Korea also said it will restart its nuclear program, which it has previously used to make nuclear material for nuclear weapons.
Too Early To Judge
Hill’s supporters in the Senate argued that the diplomat had moved the talks forward through extremely difficult challenges and that it is still too early to judge their ultimate success or failure.
But debate over Hill’s record in shepherding the six-party talks was not the only point of contention regarding his proposed assignment to Baghdad.
Critics also faulted Hill for having no prior experience working in the Middle East and for not speaking Arabic.
However, the opposition to Hill shrank markedly after the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, and the commander of U.S. forces in the entire region, General David Petraeus, indicated they supported his nomination.
Hill is also supported by his predecessor in Baghdad, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who left the post earlier this year.
Baghdad is expected to welcome the appointment.
'Welcome The Appointment'
Speaking prior to Hill’s confirmation, Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Muhammad Hajj Hammud told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that "we welcome the appointment of a new ambassador to Iraq, although the former ambassador has done a good professional job. We wish him success."
Hill has told the Senate that his top priorities in Iraq will be helping to carry out successful parliamentary elections, helping to pass a long-delayed law on oil revenue-sharing, and working to improve relations between Baghdad and its neighbors.
"The real problem in the region for Iraq remains its ancient neighbor, Iran," Hill said at his hearing last month.
"We believe, and the Iraqis definitely believe, that Iran needs to respect Iraqi sovereignty," he added.
Hill, who has been serving as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, is a former ambassador to Poland, Macedonia, and South Korea. He also took part in the 1995 Dayton peace negotiations that ended the Bosnian war.