Fast start for Obama

January 22, 2009 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, Jan 22 – President Barack Obama got straight to work on his first day in office asking top military commanders to draw up plans needed for a "responsible" withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

The new president also contacted Middle East leaders, promised a new era of ethical politics and froze the salaries of top staff in a frenetic first day in office.

"I asked the military leadership to engage in additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq ," Obama said in a statement one day after being sworn in as commander-in-chief.

Obama said he issued the instructions in a meeting with the US ambassador to Iraq, the US military commander in Iraq, the commander for the region and top cabinet and national security officials.

The meeting was designed "to get a full update on the situation in Iraq," Obama said.

Obama had promised during his campaign to order US troops out of Iraq within 16 months.

The new president, who opposed the Iraq war, has said he wants to redeploy thousands of combat troops from the country to Afghanistan, where conditions have deteriorated and which he says is the prime front against Al-Qaeda.

At the start of his first full day as president, Obama spent a few poignant moments alone in the Oval Office, reading a private letter left for him by his predecessor, when he ceded power on Tuesday.

Then, flexing his diplomatic muscles in the Middle East for the first time, Obama telephoned Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

Obama "used this opportunity on his first day in office to communicate his commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term," his spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.

The new president has also asked former Northern Ireland peacemaker and senator George Mitchell to serve as Middle East envoy, a source close to the administration said.

His first day also saw Hillary Clinton becoming the country’s top diplomat after pledging to fight climate change, push hard for Arab-Israeli peace and take a new approach to US foes like Iran.

Clinton, a former Obama presidential campaign rival and wife of former president Bill Clinton, was confirmed as secretary of state in a 94-2 vote by fellow senators.

Top Obama aides meanwhile said that the widely expected executive order from the new president to start closing the Guantanamo Bay "war on terror" prison camp would not come Wednesday, though was due shortly.

Obama also sought to make a splash on his ambitious domestic agenda, in line with a promise to purge the influence peddling and corruption staining US politics by signing a string of executive orders dealing with political ethics.

"Let me say it as simply as I can. Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency," he said, at a swearing-in ceremony for senior staff members.

The orders tightened rules on contact between lobbyists and members of the government and restricted contact between former administration members with ex-colleagues when they leave public service.

With many Americans feeling the economic pinch, Obama also clamped a salary freeze on top staff earning over more than 100,000 dollars a year.

"During this period of economic emergency, families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington," Obama said.

Later, Obama met his top economic advisors for an update on the $800 billion-plus stimulus bill he is trying to push through the US Congress.

Earlier, still basking in the euphoria surrounding his inauguration as the first black president, Obama went to Washington’s National Cathedral to hear prayers for his administration.

The Obamas sat in a high-powered front pew alongside Vice President Joseph Biden and his wife Jill and former president Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton.

"Oh God, we ask that your hand of wisdom, grace, courage, and protection will be upon, underneath, and around our 44th president, President Barack Obama," prayed Reverend Otis Moss, a renowned pastor from Cleveland, Ohio.

On Capitol Hill, Obama’s cabinet nominations made slow progress.

His pick for Treasury Secretary Timonty Geithner, faced a grilling in his confirmation hearing from Republicans concerned about his failure to pay $34,000 in past tax returns.

Republicans meanwhile frustrated Democratic leaders of the Senate Judiciary committee by forcing them to delay a vote on the nomination of Eric Holder to be attorney general for a week.

The opposition party has expressed concerns that Holder will sign on to prosecutions of interrogators who carried out controversial Bush administration "war on terror" interrogation tactics.

As he waded into tough policy work, Obama had a few more moments to reflect on his achievement of winning the White House as the first black president.

He and wife Michelle stood in the ornate White House Blue Room and met more than 200 people who won passes to an "Open House."

"There’s Barack! There’s Barack!" cried elderly Philadelphia woman Audrey Thornton as she glimpsed the new president through an open door as she was rolled through the lobby in a wheelchair on the way to the event.


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