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Nominee to be US Ambassador to Iraq Says Situation in Iraq at Pivotal Moment

President Barack Obama's nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, says he believes security can be maintained during the planned drawdown of U.S. troops from that country. The veteran diplomat testified at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Ambassador Hill says the situation in Iraq is at a pivotal moment.

"I think we really are in a crucial phase, because 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," he said.

Hill, who has a son serving in Iraq, underscored the importance of maintaining security in the country as U.S. troops draw down.

"What we need to do as our forces leave is that some things we want them to take with them, that is, a sense of the mission accomplished, and that is very important," Hill said. "But some things we want them to leave behind as well, and that is a sense of security within the country. I think we have the capability or the prospects of getting that done."

U.S. combat troops are to leave Iraq by August of next year.

The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, said Hill is well-qualified to be the next ambassador to Iraq.

Hill is a veteran diplomat who serves as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and who has been chief envoy in six-nation talks to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program. He also has been an ambassador to Macedonia and played a key role in the Dayton peace accords on Bosnia.

But some Republicans say Hill is not qualified because he does not have experience on Middle East issues. They have urged President Obama to reconsider the nomination.

Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who has disagreed with Hill over how to deal with human rights abuses by North Korea, has threatened to hold up the nomination using Senate procedural tactics.

Senator Kerry says such action would be "unconscionable".

"I believe that using Senate procedures to delay his arrival in Baghdad at a critical time in this war would do a serious disservice to our efforts there," Kerry said. "This is not a time for delay."

Hill argued he does have the experience to be U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. He said key issues facing Iraq, strengthening civilian government structures and normalizing relations with neighbors, are similar to those he dealt with during his experience with North Korea and the Balkans.

Hill won praise for his work on North Korea from the top Republican on the committee, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana.

"As assistant secretary, Ambassador Hill demonstrated outstanding diplomatic and managerial skills in dealing with one of the most difficult foreign policy challenges," Lugar said.

Another Republican, Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia, asked Hill how he hoped to do as successor to Ryan Crocker, whose tenure between 2007 and 2008 saw a notable turnaround in the war.

ISAKSON: "How do you see your role replacing Ambassador Crocker in Iraq?"

HILL: "Senator, I just don't want to screw it up."

ISAKSON: "That is just what I wanted to hear."

Hill told the committee that if confirmed, he would head to Baghdad the very next day.