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Rice Faces Tough Iraq Questions

Senate approval apparently assured, Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice is promising a prompt review of Iraq policy after Iraqi elections scheduled for the end of this month.

But she won't 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, and that means that the Iraqis have to be capable of some things before we lessen our own responsibility," she said at a lengthy confirmation hearing Tuesday.

With the 18 members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee eager to quiz Colin Powell's designated successor, and then question her again, the chairman, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., scheduled a second day of questioning Wednesday, to be followed by a vote.

Committee approval would send the nomination to the Senate where confirmation appears certain — despite unease, especially among Democrats, about reasons 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.

More than 1,365 members of the U.S. military have died since U.S. troops led an invasion in March 2003, and the growing U.S. casualty tolls shadowed the hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building. All seats in the room were occupied, and visitors lined the walls.

Through it all, Rice stood fast for the administration's decision to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by force and for the way Bush is using U.S. troops to try to counter the insurgency. She nevertheless acknowledged the operation was plagued with problems.

The Iraqi security force is doing "relatively well," she testified. "But they do need to address these questions of leadership, which then lead to problems with desertion and the like."

In that vein, Rice said U.S. troops were stepping up the mentoring of Iraqi guardsmen and police.

Her positions on the war did not stem blistering criticism from Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California.

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

Boxer, going further, accused Rice of twisting the truth to build up a case for the U.S. invasion, which stirred Rice to counter that the senator was impugning her character.

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.

    Democratic Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska pursued Rice with criticism on Iraq, as well.

    "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. She did not waver from assertions the U.S. troops would continue to help prepare Iraqi security forces to protect the country against the insurgency.

    "We need to be patient," she told Kerry, who urged the administration, as he did during the presidential campaign, to solicit more support from European and other countries.

    She told Hagel, who had urged that an exit strategy be developed after the Iraqi elections, "The Iraqis have to be capable before we leave."

    While the committee dwelled at length on Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict also drew considerable attention. Referring apparently to the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the new Palestinian leader, Rice said, "This is a moment of opportunity."

    She promised to spend a lot of time trying to steer Israel and the Palestinians into an agreement but said the terms to end their conflict had to be determined by the two sides, not the United States.

    On another front, Rice identified Cuba, Myanmar, Belarus and Zimbabwe as "outposts of tyranny" that would require close U.S. attention.

    Early in Bush's first term, he listed Iraq, Iran and North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era.

    "To be sure, in our world there remain outposts of tyranny, and America stands with oppressed people on every continent, ... in Cuba, and Burma (Myanmar), and North Korea, and Iran, and Belarus, and Zimbabwe," Rice said.

    In the meantime, she was not questioned closely about Iran and suggested no shift in U.S. tactics: to apply world pressure to stop nuclear weapons development and to try to end support for Palestinian and other terrorists.

    On North Korea, Rice reiterated administration assurances it would not be invaded or attacked and that the United States wants to resume negotiations to halt its nuclear weapons program. "They are a dangerous power," Rice said.

    She also told the committee that the administration had heard nothing from Pyongyang about resuming negotiations. The last talks were held in June.

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