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U.S. mission in Iraq dominates Rice's confirmation hearing

WASHINGTON—Senators from both parties pressed Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday to provide a clearer U.S. exit strategy from Iraq, and one Democrat accused her of deliberately misleading the American public in the run-up to the war.

Rice is expected to be easily confirmed this week, but the uneven reception she received from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee illustrated the deep domestic divisions over U.S. foreign policy that she will inherit.

Rice declined to put a timetable on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and gave no ground in defending President Bush's March 2003 invasion or the number of troops used for post-war stabilization.

She said the U.S. exit depends on training qualified Iraqi police and military personnel to take over security responsibilities, an effort that has been plagued with desertions, infiltration by insurgents and other problems.

Rice also said she will press other nations to increase their involvement in Iraq after Jan. 30 elections for a transitional Iraqi government. She is expected to travel to Europe soon after taking office.

The most dramatic moment came when Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., accused Rice of knowingly making misleading statements about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorism in order to sell the U.S. invasion.

"I personally believe ... that your loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell this war, overwhelmed your respect for the truth. And I don't say it lightly," said Boxer, recalling Rice's September 2002 statement raising the specter of "a mushroom cloud" from Saddam Hussein's alleged nuclear-weapons program.

Rice, Bush's national security adviser for the last four years, sat almost frozen during Boxer's attack and then responded forcefully.

"Senator, I have to say that I have never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything. It is not my nature. It is not my character. And I would hope that we can have this conversation and discuss what happened before ... and what I said without impugning my credibility or my integrity," she said.

As secretary of state, Rice told the committee, she will champion American diplomacy to revitalize U.S. alliances and will make promotion of democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere her overriding objective.

"The time for diplomacy is now," she said.

Rice also promised intense personal involvement in the wake of this month's Palestinian presidential election to try to mediate a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, a goal that has eluded her predecessors at the State Department.

"I expect myself to spend an enormous amount of effort on this activity," she told Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.

She pledged that the Bush administration will help strengthen and streamline Palestinian security services, but added: "We're not going to get very far if there is terrorism from the Palestinian militants."

Rice indicated she is open to the idea of appointing a special envoy for the Middle East, but has not made a final decision.

Rice also promised "a broad public diplomacy effort" to reshape the increasingly negative image of the United States around the world.

"If we're going to win the war of ideas, then we're going to have to really compete on the playing field a lot better than we're competing right now," she told the senators, many of whom returned from holiday trips overseas with stories of foreign anger at U.S. policies.

Rice shied away from announcing specific policies in many world hotspots, although she pledged to continue six-nation talks with North Korea.

Rice also hinted at additional U.S. sanctions against Syria, which she said has not responded to Washington's demands that it crack down on insurgents using Syria as a base for attacks in Iraq. "The Syrian government is behaving in a way that could, unfortunately, lead to long-term bad relations with the United States," she said.

The committee is expected to vote Wednesday to approve Rice's nomination, with full Senate action planned for Thursday afternoon.

The confirmation hearing for Rice, who will replace Secretary of State Colin Powell, was dominated by growing concerns over the U.S. mission in Iraq.

Rice rejected the arguments of several Democrats that the Bush administration devoted too few troops to stabilizing Iraq and that the U.S. invasion has made Iraq a magnet for terrorism, when it was not one before the war.

A report this month by the National Intelligence Council, an independent advisory board to the CIA, says Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as a major training ground for terrorists.

"We went in to rescue Iraq from Saddam Hussein," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "Now I think we have to rescue our policy from ourselves."

Rice replied: "I'm sure that we (made) multiple, many decisions, some of which were good, some of which might not have been good. But the strategic decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein was the right one."

Pressed by the panel's ranking Democrat, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Hagel to define the U.S. exit strategy, Rice said it hinges on training Iraqi security forces, which she acknowledged suffer from a lack of qualified leaders.

"As Iraqis become more capable, then I would assume certainly our help will be needed less," she said.

When Rice said that more than 120,000 Iraqis have been trained—the State Department puts it at 127,000—Biden objected.

"I think you'll find, if you speak to the folks on the ground, they don't think there's more than 4,000 actually trained Iraqi forces," he said. "The exit strategy for America is a trained force of several hundred thousand people. We're talking about a year or more to get anywhere close to that. We should level with the American people about it."

Rice didn't have to testify to Congress in her White House role. She did testify, after resistance from Bush, to the independent Sept. 11 commission.

The senators' treatment of her, while respectful, wasn't as warm as the reception usually accorded Powell, who was seen by many lawmakers as a moderating influence on Bush. By contrast, Rice has been a member of Bush's inner councils.

"It's not enough to have the ear of the president; I think the secretary of State must also win the ear of the world," Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., told her.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050118 RICE bio

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