Former Republican senator Chuck Hagel was on Wednesday sworn-in as the new United States defence secretary, in the midst of a controversy over his remarks that India “financed problems” for Pakistan in Afghanistan.
Hagel, 66, a Vietnam war veteran, was confirmed by the senate on Wednesday after a bruising confirmation hearing.
Senators voted 58-41 to approve Hagel, ending a long and acrimonious nomination process and clearing President Barack Obama's choice for the top post held by Leon Panetta.
Sworn in by the Director of Administration and Management Michael L Rhodes, Hagel took the oath of office in a private ceremony attended by family members and his immediate office staff.
Hagel's confirmation comes as a great relief for the Obama administration as his nomination was held up for weeks and the Democrats and the White House had to do a tough convincing act to get him approved by the senate.
Several Republican senators are said to have voted in favour of Hagel despite their reservations over his past statements and votes. They argued that he was too critical of Israel and too compromising with Iran.
Republicans have also been irked by Hagel's views on NATO as he had in a speech questioned the utility and relevance of the US-led force.
Hagel will replace incumbent Panetta at a time when the department is faced with multiple challenges including defence budget cuts, rapidly changing developments in the Middle East, increasing threat from North Korea besides the scheduled withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in 2014.
Welcoming the confirmation, President Obama said Hagel is the kind of defence secretary America needs.
"With the bipartisan confirmation of Chuck Hagel as our next secretary of defence, we will have the defense secretary our nation needs and the leader our troops deserve," he said.
In a statement, Obama said he will be counting on Hagel's judgment and counsel as the US ends the war in Afghanistan, bring troops home, stay ready to meet the threats of the time and keep the military the finest fighting force in the world.
Hagel's confirmation comes a day after a video containing his remarks surfaced in which he claimed, "India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front, and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border".
Reacting to this, the Indian Embassy here said, "Such comments attributed to Senator Hagel, who has been a long-standing friend of India and a prominent votary of close India-US relations are contrary to the reality of India's unbounded dedication to the welfare of Afghan people".