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OSLO (AFP) - US President Barack Obama sensationally won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday less than a year after he took office with the jury hailing his "extraordinary" diplomatic efforts on the international stage.
The jury hailed Obama's "extraordinary" efforts in international diplomacy and to hasten nuclear disarmament, but criticism surged quickly over how the award could be given so soon.
The US leader, 48, said he was "humbled" by the distinction.
"Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future," the Nobel jury said in making the stunning announcement.
A gasp went through the Nobel Institute in Oslo as Obama's name was read out.
The committee attached "special importance to Obama's vision and work for a world without nuclear weapons" and said he had created "a new climate in international politics."
Obama took office on January 20 and has sought to restore US standing after widespread criticism over the war in Iraq and the world superpower's attitude to efforts to control global warming.
The first black American president has brought the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together for a meeting, approved new diplomatic engagement with Iran, Myanmar and North Korea and signalled a new willingness to attack growing environmental problems.
Obama went to Cairo to make a major speech on relations with the Muslim world, badly tarnished by President George W. Bush's order to invade Iraq. At the United Nations, he has launched an initiative to reduce the number of nuclear weapons.
The US president was awoken at 6:00 am at the White House by his spokesman to be told of the award. An administration official quoted Obama as saying he felt "humbled".
Obama was honoured "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples," the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee Thorbjoern Jagland said, adding that it was "a unanimous decision."
The jury said: "Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations," it said.
"Thanks to Obama's initiative, the US is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic changes the world is confronting."
The committee said it was seeking to encourage Obama's ideals rather than recognise concrete results.
Speaking to AFP, Jagland said: "It was unavoidable to give the prize to the man who has improved the international climate and emphasised negotiations and dialogue."
"Before he took office the situation was so dangerous. Step by step he has given the message to the world that he wants to negotiate on all conflicts, strengthen the United Nations and work for a world without any nuclear arms."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the award, calling it an "incentive to the president and to us all" to do more for peace.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation agreed.
"We trust that this award will strengthen his commitment, as the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, to continue promoting peace and the eradication of poverty," it said.
The UN said it hoped the prize would encourage Obama to commit to an international treaty on global warming, and the head of the Arab League, Amr Mussa, said he hoped it would "help intensify efforts to reach peace in the Middle East and contain negative efforts opposed to peace."
A spokesman for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tehran hoped it would give Obama "the incentive to walk in the path of bringing justice to the world order."
UN's nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei, another past Peace Prize winner, said Obama had "transformed the way we look at ourselves and the world we live in and rekindled hope for a world at peace with itself."
"President Obama has provided outstanding leadership on moving towards a world free of nuclear weapons," he said.
But Poland's anti-communist leader Lech Walesa, who won the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize, said it was too early to reward Obama now.
"Who, Obama? So fast? Too fast -- he hasn't had the time to do anything yet," Walesa told reporters in Warsaw.
"For the time being Obama's just making proposals. But sometimes the Nobel committee awards the prize to encourage responsible action."
In Afghanistan, Taliban militia spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid condemned the prize, saying, "We have seen no change in his strategy for peace. He has done nothing for peace in Afghanistan."
Asked whether it was too early to give Obama the prize, Jagland replied: "If you look at the history of the Peace Prize, we have on many occasions given it to try to enhance what many personalities were trying to do."
"The decision to go to Afghanistan had a unanimous UN mandate. The conflict in Afghanistan concerns us all. This is not only the responsibility of Barack Obama but hopefully this improved international climate could help resolve the conflict," he said.
Obama is the third US president in office to win the award, after Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and Woodrow Wilson in 1919. Former US president Jimmy Carter won the prize in 2002.
The gold medal, diploma and a cheque for 10 million Swedish kronor (1.42 million dollars, 980,000 euros) will be presented in Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of the death in 1896 of the prize creator, Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel.
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Last Updated (Tuesday, 09 February 2010 07:59)