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Rice Faces More Iraq Scrutiny

Sen. Joseph Biden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, challenged Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice Wednesday to acknowledge Bush administration mistakes on Iraq and said he would vote for her confirmation, but only with "some frustration and reservation."

The Delaware Democrat, zeroing in on U.S. policy in Iraq as he had during Tuesday's initial hearing, accused the Bush administration of giving shifting reasons to justify the war to oust Saddam Hussein.

Rice, whom committee members have said is assured of Senate approval, had steadfastly refused Tuesday to say when U.S. forces might be withdrawn from Iraq. And on Wednesday, Biden cited various rationales for the war, saying "you danced around it, stuck to the party line."

He told Rice that acknowledging mistakes — such as the claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was poised to use them — should not be considered "a sign of weakness."

Rice insisted that Saddam was a dictator who refused to account for weapons of mass destruction. And it was impossible to change the nature of a terror threat in the Middle East with him leading Iraq, she testified.

But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., would not be shaken off, even after Rice acknowledged to the committee that "there were some bad decisions" taken by the Bush administration on Iraq.

She accused Rice of "an unwillingness to give Americans the full story because selling the war was so important to Dr. Rice. That was her job."

And now, Boxer said, the toll of American dead and wounded is the "direct result" of Bush administration "rigidness" and misstatements.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., meanwhile, urged Rice to consider reconciliation with Iran, which he said was about as repressive as China was when the Nixon administration approached Beijing for better relations.

But Rice said, "It is really hard to find common ground with a government that thinks Israel should be extinguished," supports terror groups and is undercutting U.S. peace efforts in the Middle East.

More than 1,365 members of the U.S. military have died since U.S. troops led an invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

But Rice has declined to estimate when even some of the 150,000 U.S. troops may return home.

"I am really reluctant to try to put a timetable on that, because I think the goal is to get the mission accomplished," she had said Tuesday, "and that means that the Iraqis have to be capable of some things before we lessen our own responsibility," she said.

The 18 members of the committee were eager to quiz Colin Powell's designated successor, although Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the panel's chairman, planned a vote following the hearing.

Committee approval would send the nomination to the Senate where confirmation appears certain — despite unease, especially among Democrats, about reasons Mr. Bush, Powell, Rice and others in the administration gave for going to war in March 2003 and how they are dealing with a deadly postwar insurgency.

At the State Department, Powell planned a farewell speech at mid-day, while employees were told to gather Friday in the lobby to welcome Rice on what would be her first day in charge of U.S. foreign policy.

Her positions on the war did not stem blistering criticism from Democratic senators.

Sen. John Kerry, who made Mr. Bush's management of postwar Iraq an issue in his losing presidential campaign, told Rice Tuesday that "the current policy is growing the insurgency and not diminishing it."

"This was never going to be easy," Rice said in response. "There were going to be ups and downs."

She said that after the Iraqis have voted on Jan. 30 for a transitional assembly, the Bush administration would conduct a review.

"We need to be patient," she told Kerry.

In other confirmation-hearing news:

  • Senators on Tuesday pressed Health and Human Services nominee Mike Leavitt for a permanent commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration, which has been without one for nearly a year amid rising concerns about the safety of drugs on the market. Describing the FDA as an "agency in crisis," Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., asked the former Utah governor at a confirmation hearing on his nomination whether someone would be named by the end of January.

    "I share with you the view that the agency needs permanent leadership," Leavitt replied. Pressed further on the point, Leavitt said the White House will make the decision. He added, "I will do all I can to see that it occurs, and it's my sense that it will happen soon."

  • Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales told the Senate on Tuesday that he supports extending the expired federal assault weapons ban. Gonzales also said he wants Congress to get rid of a requirement that would eliminate part of the Patriot Act this year, despite complaints that it is too intrusive.

    "I believe the USA PATRIOT Act has greatly improved our nation's ability to detect and prevent terrorist attacks," Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee in written answers to questions left over from his confirmation hearing. Gonzales, who served as President Bush's lawyer during his first term, is expected to be confirmed when the Senate returns after Bush's inauguration on Jan. 20. He would be the nation's first Hispanic attorney general and replace John Ashcroft.

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