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Obama to spark row over Defence Secretary choice

By Rupert Cornwell

US President Barack Obama is set to nominate the outspoken former Republican senator Chuck Hagel as America's next Defence Secretary, setting up a fierce confirmation battle likely to focus on US relations with Israel and the looming showdown over Iran's nuclear programme.

According to Democratic aides on Capitol Hill - where the confirmation hearings will be held by the Senate's Armed Services Committee - Mr Obama could announce Mr Hagel as his choice to succeed the departing Leon Panetta at the Pentagon as early as today.

The potential selection of the 66-year-old, who won two Purple Hearts as an infantry squad leader in Vietnam, has been hailed by many as a rare moment of bipartisanship in today's polarised Washington. And so it would be - but mainly in the sense that many Democrats and Republicans alike object to aspects of Mr Hagel's record during his two Senate terms representing Nebraska, between 1997 and 2009.

For civil rights groups, he has come under fire for calling former US ambassador to Luxembourg, James Hormel, an "openly aggressive gay." Though that could be damaging in the majority-Democratic Senate, Mr Hagel has strenuously apologised for the remark, which he made back in 1998.

Potentially more perilous is the rebellious streak that led him to criticise the power of what he called "the Jewish lobby" in Washington, when knee-jerk support for Israel is virtually obligatory on Capitol Hill. And many of his erstwhile Senate colleagues still resent how, after initially voting to authorise the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he turned into a fierce critic of a war launched by a Republican president, and then advocated that instead of piling more sanctions on Iran, the US should instead sit down and talk with the regime.

Those objections were only too evident on yesterday's talk shows. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, told ABC's This Week that his fellow Republican should get a "fair" confirmation hearing if picked, but notably failed to repeat previous praise for Mr Hagel.

"He ought to be given a fair hearing like any other nominee, and he will be," Mr McConnell said. But, he added, "I'm going to wait and see how the hearings go and whether Chuck's views square with the job he would be nominated to do."

South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, a prominent Republican on the Armed Services Committee, was even more scathing, describing the likely nomination as an "in-your-face" gesture by Mr Obama.

Mr Hagel was "out of the mainstream on most issues of foreign policy," Mr Graham said CNN's State of the Union. "I don't think he'll get many Republican votes," he added.

Even so, barring a filibuster or other procedural move to block a vote, Mr Hagel would probably win confirmation. He has long been admired by the President - and even accompanied then candidate-Obama on a visit to Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan in the summer of 2008. He is also strongly backed by stalwarts of the foreign policy establishment, including former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft.

President Obama may also announce a successor this week to General David Petraeus, who was forced to resign as CIA director in early November after revelation of an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. The leading candidates for the job are John Brennan, top counter-terrorism adviser at the White House, and the Agency's current acting chief, Michael Morell.

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