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George Mitchell Named Mideast Envoy

Thursday, 22 Jan 2009 09:27 PM

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama named special envoys on Thursday for the long-troubled Middle East and the violent Afghanistan-Pakistan region and promised U.S. help in ensuring a lasting truce in Gaza.

Obama chose former Sen. George Mitchell as an envoy who will try to jump-start moribund Arab-Israeli peace talks.

In a flurry of diplomatic activity in his first week in office, Obama also tapped former ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke to be the first-ever special U.S. envoy for Afghanistan, Pakistan and related issues.

Both the envoys have records of success in helping settle long-running violent conflicts -- Mitchell in Northern Ireland and Holbrooke in the Balkans.

"We have no time to lose," said Obama, who introduced Mitchell and Holbrooke at an event with newly confirmed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Mitchell will go to the Middle East to help ensure the durability of the ceasefire in Gaza, which was left devastated by a 22-day Israeli offensive against Hamas. Israeli said it launched the offensive in response to rocket attacks from the militant group.

"It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors," Obama said.


In discussing the Mideast issues, neither Obama nor Clinton mentioned Iran.

But Obama seemed to allude to Iran when he said his administration wanted to signal to all countries in the region "that external support for terrorist organizations must stop."

The Bush administration had accused Iran of supporting the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, and in the past had linked Tehran to weapons and explosives smuggled to insurgents in Iraq.

Obama said during the campaign he favored high-level engagement with Iran but since the election he has given no details on when that effort might start.

Pressed on Iran during a briefing, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs reiterated that Obama believes "We're going to have to engage our friends and our enemies in order to make our country safe and secure."

Clinton said the United States had to restore its standing in the world. "We must be smarter about how we exercise our power," she said.

Obama has ordered a full review of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, where he has pledged to boost troop strength, and told generals to take the first steps toward a pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq.

He has pledged to shift the focus of the struggle against terrorism back onto Afghanistan and away from Iraq. Osama bin Laden and other top al Qaeda militants are believed to be hiding in the mountainous border region of Pakistan near Afghanistan.

The day after his inauguration, Obama called Israeli and Arab leaders to commit himself to active engagement in the Mideast and to promise help consolidating the Gaza ceasefire.

Mitchell, 75 and a Democrat, is best known for peacemaking efforts in Northern Ireland, but he also has experience in the Middle East and was appointed by former President Bill Clinton to find ways to halt Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Mitchell's 2001 report called for Israelis to freeze construction of new settlements and for Palestinians to crack down on terrorism. Mitchell is the son of a Lebanese immigrant mother and a father of Irish descent.

Mitchell said that from his experience working on the Northern Ireland issue, he "formed the conviction that there is no conflict that cannot be ended."

Holbrooke, 67, said he had been given a "daunting assignment."

Holbrooke gained prominence by brokering the Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia.

Nabil Abu Rdainah, aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said he hoped the appointment of the new Mideast envoy would signal a shift in the U.S. approach toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"We will deal with Obama's envoy and we hope he will work fast to implement the road map and the Arab peace initiative as well as international agreements and to implement Obama's change policy in order to bring justice and freedom to our people," he said.

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