WASHINGTON/OSLO - Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in a stunning decision that honored the first-year U.S. president more for promise than achievement and drew both praise and skepticism around the world.
The bestowal of one of the world's top accolades on a president less than nine months in office, who has yet to score a major foreign policy success, was greeted with gasps of astonishment from journalists at the announcement in Oslo.
Obama expressed surprise at winning the award, saying he felt humbled and unworthy of being counted in the company of the transformative figures of history who had won it.
I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments but rather an affirmation of American leadership, he said in the White House Rose Garden. I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee praised Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples, citing his fledgling push for nuclear disarmament and his outreach to the Muslim world.
Obama has been widely credited with improving America's global image after the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush, who alienated both friends and foes with go-it-alone policies like the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
But critics called the Nobel committee's decision premature, given that Obama so far has made little tangible headway as he grapples with challenges ranging from the war in Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea.
Obama, who got the news of the prize in a pre-dawn call from his press secretary, now also has the burden of living up to its expectations.
LITANY OF UNRESOLVED PROBLEMS
The first African-American to hold his country's highest office, Obama, 48, has struggled with a litany of foreign policy problems bequeathed to him by Bush, while taking a more multilateral approach than his predecessor.
Obama acknowledged while accepting an award predicated on the pursuit of peace, he was commander-in-chief of a country in two wars. We have to confront the world as we know it, he said.
He received the honor the same day he was convening his war council to weigh whether to send thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to turn the tide against a resurgent Taliban.
Despite troubles at home including a battered economy and fierce healthcare debate that have eroded his once-lofty approval ratings, the Democratic U.S. president is still widely seen around the world as an inspirational figure.
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 committee said in its citation.
But some analysts saw the award as a final slap in the face for Bush from the European establishment, which had resented what they saw as arrogance and recklessness in world affairs.
Obama will travel to Oslo to receive the prize on December 10, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said.
While the award won praise from such statesmen as Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev, both Nobel laureates, it was also attacked in some quarters as hasty and undeserved.
Afghanistan's Taliban mocked the award.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, speaking to Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location, said it was absurd to give a peace award to a man who had sent 21,000 extra troops to Afghanistan, and Obama should have won the 'Nobel Prize for escalating violence and killing civilians.'
Obama is considering a request from his top commander in Afghanistan to send him at least 40,000 more troops.
The Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and opposes a peace treaty with Israel, said the award was premature at best.
Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland rejected suggestions from journalists that Obama was getting the prize too early, saying it recognized what he had already done over the past year.
We hope this can contribute a little bit to enhance what he is trying to do, he told a news conference.
Obama is the fourth U.S. president to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after Jimmy Carter won in 2002, Woodrow Wilson picked it up in 1919 and Theodore Roosevelt was chosen for the 1906 prize.
Issam al-Khazraji, a day laborer in Baghdad, said of Obama: He doesn't deserve this prize. All these problems -- Iraq, Afghanistan -- have not been solved ... man of 'change' hasn't changed anything yet.
Liaqat Baluch, a senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a conservative religious party in Pakistan, called the award an embarrassing joke.
But the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, welcomed it and expressed hope that Obama will be able to achieve peace in the Middle East.
While many Americans voiced pride, some were puzzled.
It would be wonderful if I could think why he won, said Claire Sprague, 82, a retired English professor as she walked her dog in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. They wanted to give him an honor I guess, but I can't think what for.
The committee said it attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons, saying he had created a new climate in international politics.
On other pressing issues, Obama is still searching for breakthroughs on Iran's disputed nuclear program and on stalled Middle East peacemaking.
Israel's foreign minister said on Thursday there was no chance of a peace deal for many years.
Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who had been tipped as a favorite for the prize, told Reuters that Obama was a deserving candidate and an extraordinary example.
The prize is worth 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.4 million).
(Additional reporting by Oslo newsroom, Kamran Haider in Pakistan, Mohammed Assadi, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Mark Denge in Nairobi, Jason Webb in Spain; Writing by Alistair Bell, Editing by Frances Kerry and Eric Beech)