Obama's ambassador pick brings fight over Iraq policy back to Capitol Hill

President Obama's decision to pull all troops out of Iraq will come under renewed scrutiny this week as the Senate considers his choice for ambassador to the country.

Obama's pick, Brett McGurk, led the failed negotiations to extend the U.S. troop presence past the end of 2011. The political situation in Iraq has deteriorated since then, prompting hawkish senators such as John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to lambast the White House.

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“I will have very significant questions about his qualifications and his positions on the issues,” McCain told Foreign Policy's blog The Cable when the nomination was announced in March. “He's not my choice.”

McGurk has testified that the United States would only have agreed to keep U.S. forces in Iraq past the end of last year if they remained immune from prosecution by Iraqi courts, something Iraq would not agree to.

The current ambassador, Jim Jeffrey, has told the State Department he wants to step down from his posting at the largest U.S. embassy in the world.

It’s unclear how many Republican senators will have the stomach to oppose the White House on such a sensitive posting. Many of them were traveling abroad during the recess week and weren’t available for comment.

While the GOP’s stance is unknown, opposition to McGurk from some Iraqi quarters appears to be weakening.
 When his nomination was first announced, the main opposition coalition declared that it would have nothing to do with him because of his alleged close ties to Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The self-described nonsectarian Iraqiya List has accused Maliki of a power grab and has hired a U.S. public-relations shop to draw attention to the deteriorating political situation since U.S troops left the country in December.

“I would like to inform you that al-Iraqiya bloc and the liberal trend will not deal with new assigned ambassador to Iraq Mr. Brett McGurk for his loyalty and bounds with the Islamic party,” the Washington representative of former Prime Minister Ayed Allawi, a leader of the coalition, wrote to lawmakers in March.

The vow to ignore an official White House envoy appears to have stirred controversy, however, and on Thursday a senior adviser to the Iraqiya List shared a much different message with The Hill.

“We consider the nomination of Mr. McGurk to be a U.S. government internal affair and if Mr. McGurk is confirmed then our relationship with him will be based on the mutual interests of Iraq and the U.S.,” said Mark Alsalih, who is also the U.S. representative for Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashimi, another Iraqiya List leader.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to bring up McGurk's nomination on Wednesday, along with Obama's picks for ambassador to Sri Lanka and Tajikistan.