WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. diplomat charged with closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is taking up a new post and will not be replaced, with most of his duties being turned over to the State Department's top lawyer, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.
The fact that Ambassador Dan Fried will not be replaced may raise questions about the Obama administration's plan to close the prison, though the officials denied any erosion in their commitment to shutter the detention center.
There are now 166 prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba in a detention center set up after the September 11, 2001, attacks to hold people captured in counterterrorism operations overseas.
On taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama ordered the prison closed within a year but that initiative failed in part because of security concerns among Americans and opposition from Congress, which passed laws making it harder to transfer prisoners out.
Fried is becoming the State Department's sanctions coordinator, where much of his work will focus on efforts to use economic penalties in conjunction with diplomacy to try to force Iran to address questions about its nuclear program.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Fried's work on transferring Guantanamo Bay prisoners would now be handled by the office of the State Department legal adviser.
"The placement of the Guantanamo portfolio in the Office of the Legal Adviser does not signal a diminution of the administration's commitment to close Guantanamo," said a senior State Department official.
"The Administration has made clear that closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility is in the interest of our national security and remains committed to the responsible and safe transfer of the remaining detainees," the official added.
He stressed the administration's "opposition to congressional restrictions that impede our ability to implement these transfers."
During Fried's tenure, 71 Guantanamo Bay detainees have been transferred to various destinations, including 40 who were sent to countries rather than to their own nations, the officials said.
Fried's unrelated work on closing Camp Ashraf in Iraq, used by members of the Mujahadin-e Khalq Iranian dissident group, will be handled by the State Department's bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Doina Chiacu)