WASHINGTON - As the first Muslim member of Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., has long used his high-profile status to enhance America's image in the Middle East. On Friday, he was appointed to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Ellison, who has made a half-dozen government-sponsored trips to the Middle East, recently became the first member of Congress to participate in the hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca. He has also been a key component of the Bush administration's public diplomacy efforts, despite his opposition to the war in Iraq.

"All I want to do is help make friends for the United States," Ellison said Friday in an interview.

The Foreign Affairs Committee handles diplomacy, nuclear nonproliferation, trade disputes and other international issues. Ellison said the assignment is a good fit for his immigrant-rich, Minneapolis-area district, including one of the nation's largest Somali populations.

"My main goal is to help my constituents understand how tightly connected we are with the rest of the world and how important it is to have an international outlook," he said. "I really want to connect my district to these issues."

While he won't find out which subcommittee he'll serve on for another two weeks, Ellison said he is eager to tackle some of his pet issues, such as U.S. aid to developing democracies.

"The world knows about America's hard power, our massive military might," he said. "But I think America's real strength lies in America as an influential thought leader around the world."

Ellison was one of two Minnesota representatives who voted "present" to abstain from a resolution backing Israel's right to defend itself in its conflict with Hamas fighters in Gaza. He and Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum said the resolution made little mention of the human suffering in Gaza. They have both called for a cease-fire.

Ellison has taken separate trips to Israel with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Majority Leader Stenny Hoyer, D-Md., party leaders who make committee appointments.

Mitch Anderson • 202-408-2723