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Security, foreign affairs dominate Obama's day

President Barack Obama readied national security moves that included preparations to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, review military trials for terror suspects and ban harsh interrogation tactics.

world Updated: Jan 22, 2009 20:39 IST

Moving quickly to reverse many former Bush administration policies, President Barack Obama readied on Thursday national security moves that included preparations to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, review military trials for terror suspects and ban harsh interrogation tactics.

Obama also was set to name a highly respected veteran politician to serve as special Mideast envoy, a step to make good on a campaign pledge to be more robustly involved in efforts to help with peace efforts in the volatile region.

The Republican opposition in Congress, meanwhile, said it would seek a meeting with Obama to voice growing concerns about portions of his plan to spend $825 billion in a bid to reverse the country's perilous economic slide.

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, who is responsible for the party's legislative agenda, said Republicans want to work with the new administration but worry that many facets of the proposed stimulus program would not create jobs, a vital requirement as unemployment numbers climb. Cantor spoke on CBS television Thursday.

His comments came as the government reported that initial jobless benefit claims rose to a seasonally adjusted 589,000 in the week ending Jan. 17 a 26-year high. Another report indicated that new home construction plunged to an all-time low in December, capping the worst year for builders on records dating back to 1959. On Obama's second day in office, a senior Obama administration official said Obama would sign the order to shutter the Guantanamo prison within one year. Critics of the lockup at a U.S. Navy base in Cuba say its use violates detainee rights.

The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the order has not yet been issued.

A draft copy of the order, obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, notes that "in view of significant concerns raised by these detentions, both within the United States and internationally, prompt and appropriate disposition of the individuals currently detained at Guantanamo and closure of the facility would further the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice."

The executive order was one of three expected on how to interrogate and prosecute al-Qaida, Taliban or other foreign fighters believed to threaten the United States. The administration already has suspended trials for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo for 120 days pending a review of the military tribunals. An estimated 245 men are being held at the US naval base in Cuba, most of whom have been detained for years without being charged with a crime.

Obama also had in hand executive orders to review military trials of terror suspects and end harsh interrogations, a key part of aides' plans that had been assembled even before Obama won the election on Nov. 4.

On Thursday, Obama was visiting the State Department to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and his top national security advisers to round out a day focused on restoring the U.S. image abroad by making a clean break with some of the most controversial national security policies of the administration of former President George W. Bush.

White House aides announced that the president would meet with retired military officers about the executive orders in the morning, but would not confirm that Obama planned to sign them immediately. The Obama-Clinton meeting also was to include Vice President Joe Biden and national security adviser Jim Jones and his deputy. It was to be followed by an address by Obama and Clinton to department employees.

The address could provide an opening for Obama to enter the daunting thicket of Middle East diplomacy.

It could also be the time he announces George Mitchell, the former Senate Democratic leader, as his special Mideast envoy. Mitchell, 75, will return to a role he pursued during President Bill Clinton's presidency when the former senator took on several difficult diplomatic assignments, including chairing peace talks on Northern Ireland.

Mitchell also led an international commission to investigate violence in the Middle East. His report, issued in spring 2001, after Clinton had left office, called for a freeze on Israeli settlements on the West Bank and a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism.

Obama has vowed to move swiftly to meet challenges in the Middle East and other troubled overseas regions.

On his first full day in office, Obama made telephone calls Wednesday to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Jordan's King Abdullah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

Obama was starting his day Thursday with a private meeting on the nation's struggling economy, a signal to the millions of Americans hit by tighter credit, increasing home foreclosures and the dollar's shrinking value.

Some of Obama's other promises already were being implemented on his first full day in office.

On Wednesday, he signed executive orders to limit his staff's ability to leave the administration to lobby their former colleagues. He also limited pay raises for his senior aides making more than $100,000 a year a nod to a flailing economy and voters' frustrations.

The new commander in chief held his first meeting in the Situation Room, where he, Biden and senior military and foreign policy officials discussed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama campaigned on a pledge to withdraw US combat forces from Iraq within 16 months, and to beef up the commitment in Afghanistan. Obama asked the Pentagon to do whatever additional planning necessary to "execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq."