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Obama Taps Ex-senator Chuck Hagel for Pentagon

WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama on Monday chose former senator Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary, praising his "willingness to speak his mind" amid expectations of a tough Senate confirmation fight.

Obama said Hagel "understands that America stands strongest when we stand with allies and with friends," after criticism by Republican lawmakers of the former Nebraska senator's past statements on Israel.

Obama said that Hagel, a Republican who broke with his party through his criticism of the Iraq war, earned "respect of national security and military leaders, Republicans and Democrats, including me."

"In the Senate, I came to admire his courage, his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind, even if it wasn't popular, even if it defied conventional wisdom," Obama said with Hagel at his side at the White House.

"That's exactly the spirit I want on my national security team," Obama said.

Obama called Hagel "an American patriot" and said that he would play a critical role as the first person of enlisted rank to serve as defense secretary. Hagel bears shrapnel scars from Vietnam.

"Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction. He knows that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that's something we only do when it's absolutely necessary," Obama said.