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Senate panel grills defense nominee Hagel

US President Barack Obama's pick to lead the Pentagon during his second term has faced harsh scrutiny by Republican senators during a nomination hearing. Chuck Hagel was grilled by Senator John McCain.

Vietnam War veteran and former senator Chuck Hagel responded publicly on Thursday for the first time to criticisms of his record on defense issues, during a mandatory hearing before the US Senate Armed Services Committee.

Hagel - if confirmed by the Senate - would become the lone Republican in Obama's cabinet, replacing outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Democrats control 53 seats in the full Senate and are allied with two independents. They can approve Hagel with no Republican support, but could still be hampered by Republican use of procedural hurdles.

During Thursday's hearing, Republican Party senators focused many of their questions on their fellow Republican's comments of recent years, which have repeatedly come under scrutiny for diverging from the party line of being strongly pro-Israel and tough on Iran.

The committee's Democratic chairman, Carl Levin, said he felt "reassured" after clarification by Hagel of past comments about unilateral sanctions on Iran.

McCain questions Hagel on Iraq

The focus of questioning came from Republican Senator John McCain, also a Vietnam War veteran, who cross-examined his once close electoral ally for his reversed position on the Iraq war.

Hagel had initially supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, but later expressed an opposition to what he saw as a blunder comparable to Washington's failed military campaign in Vietnam.

When asked whether he considered his opposition to the Iraq troop "surge" in 2007 as justified, Hagel declined to give a direct yes or no answer. More than 20,000 US soldiers were deployed during the surge, in a bid to bring Iraq back from the brink of collapse.

"I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out," replied Hagel.

McCain repeated his request for a direct answer for several minutes, but Hagel said the issue was too complex for such a simple response.

"Your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether to vote for your confirmation or not," McCain said.

Controversial comments about Israel

The former Nebraska senator's previous comments regarding Israel, Iran and nuclear disarmament were also scrutinized.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina criticized remarks Hagel had once made in reference to US-Israeli relations, in which he had contended that a "Jewish lobby" gained influence in Washington through intimidation.

"I should have used another term and I'm sorry and I regret it," Hagel said. "On the use of intimidation, I should have used 'influence,' I think would have been more appropriate."

Open criticism of Israel by politicians is widely unpopular in the US, one of Israel's strongest allies.

"I can't think of a more provocative thing to say about the relationship between the United States and Israel and the Senate or the Congress than what you said," Graham said.

Prevention, not containment, says Hagel

During the stringent questioning, Hagel attempted to characterize himself as a supporter of the Obama administration and a leader with sound judgment.

When questioned about Iran, Hagel maintained that he supported President Obama's goal of ensuring that Tehran did not obtain nuclear weapons.

"My policy is one of prevention, and not one of containment - and the president has made clear that is the policy of our government," Hagel said, adding that he always supported multilateral sanctions against Iran.

kms,ipj/slk(AFP, AP, Reuters)