Congress considers pick for US ambassador to Iraq

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By DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats and Republicans pressed ahead on President Barack Obama's choice for U.S. ambassador to Iraq, even though a top GOP lawmaker has "grave concerns" about the nomination of Brett McGurk.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has scheduled a confirmation hearing on Wednesday, with members of the panel saying they saw no obstacles to McGurk winning their approval to the posting to one of the United States' largest diplomatic missions in the world.

"He's had diverse experience in Iraq. He's probably had more assignments there than anyone I can think of and in very senior positions," Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said Tuesday. "I think he'll do quite well."

But McGurk, who has worked in the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has drawn opposition from Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. McCain remains critical of what he says is McGurk's failure to negotiate with Baghdad to ensure a U.S. residual force in Iraq after combat troops left at the end of 2011.

"I think when you see the unraveling of Iraq that's taking place, we should have had a residual force," McCain told reporters Tuesday. "Everybody knows that. But that wasn't what Obama wanted."

Asked if he would try to block the nomination, McCain said, "I have to see what happens in his hearing."

On Monday, at least 23 people were killed and more than 70 were wounded in Baghdad as a suicide bomber detonated an explosive-rigged car outside Iraq's main religious affairs office for Shiite Muslims, officials said. It was the deadliest single attack in the country in three months.

While violence has dropped sharply in recent years, attacks on Iraqi government offices and members of the security forces are still occurring. The country has been beset by sectarian divisions and political uncertainty as a unity government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been largely paralyzed since American troops left in December.

McGurk would replace the current ambassador, James F. Jeffrey. While McCain's reservations are problematic for the nominee, Republican and Democratic aides said it's unlikely lawmakers want to revive the fight over the divisive Iraq war more than five months after U.S. forces left.

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