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Friday, February 6, 2009

Obama overrides Hillary; Baghdad appointment telegraphs new U.S. Iran policy

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, in what was seen as a key message to Iran, intervened at the last minute to nominate his personal choice as U.S. ambassador to Iraq.   

Christopher Hill, former Ambassador and U.S. Asst Sec. of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, in New York, on Feb. 3.     Reuters/Mike Segar
Government sources said Obama blocked the appointment of former U.S. Central Command chief [Ret.] Gen. Anthony Zinni as the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Instead, Obama, overruling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, selected outgoing Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill as ambassador to Baghdad.

"Zinni was regarded as being a key player in the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, but Hill was chosen by Obama because the president wants a direct line with Teheran," a government source said.

Zinni, an early opponent of the U.S. war in Iraq, was said to have been Ms. Clinton's choice for ambassador to Iraq, Middle East Newsline reported.

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The sources said the appointment of Hill reflected an emerging Obama policy of reconciliation with Teheran. Under President George Bush, Hill, supported by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, spearheaded a U.S. drive to offer concessions to North Korea for a pledge to end its nuclear weapons program. The sources said Hill's negotiations with Pyongyang failed to stop or slow down its missile or nuclear program.

The sources said Zinni, who advised Obama during the campaign, was informed by Ms. Clinton on Jan. 26 that he had been nominated ambassador. Zinni was told to submit documents to the Senate on Feb. 3 for the confirmation process.

On late Feb. 2, Zinni received a telephone call from National Security Advisor James Jones that Hill would be nominated instead. The sources said Jones, a fellow U.S. Marine commander, said the switch was ordered by Obama.

The sources said Hill's appointment reflected Obama's determination to accelerate any reconciliation dialogue with Teheran. They said Hill would meet senior Iranian representatives in Baghdad in discussions expected to focus on Teheran's nuclear program. Both Iran and the United States have established a large diplomatic presence in Baghdad.

"Hill will be authorized by Obama to win Iranian cooperation for the U.S. withdrawal from both Iraq and Afghanistan," the source said. "The president sees Iran as the key to any smooth withdrawal."

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