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Rice: No Timetable For Iraq Exit

Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice told senators on Tuesday that a U.S. exit strategy from Iraq depends on that country's ability to defend itself against terrorists after this month's elections. She vowed to work to ease ties with allies frayed by U.S. policy there.

"The world is coming together behind the idea that we have to succeed in Iraq," she asserted at a confirmation hearing on her nomination to replace Colin Powell in the top foreign policy post.

Stepping out from her largely behind-the-scenes role as President Bush's national security adviser, Rice said she could not give Congress a timetable for American disengagement.

"The goal is to get the mission accomplished," Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We're right now focused on security for the (Jan. 30) election."

Rice said spreading democracy through the Middle East remains a top administration foreign-policy objective and said the Palestinian election earlier this month following the death of Yasser Arafat offers "a moment of opportunity."

But Rice also said Palestinian leaders need to do more to end acts of terrorism against Israel, saying peace hopes will be dashed if such violence continues.

She raised the possibility that President Bush might name an envoy to the Palestinians, but said timing was an issue. "No one has objections in principle" to such an envoy, she said, but Rice added that "it is a question over whether that is appropriate" at this time.

There is no doubt that Rice will be confirmed and she's expected to be sworn in on Inauguration Day, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante.

But she drew some sharp comments from Democrats on the committee over the administration's sometimes go-it-alone approach to foreign policy.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the unsuccessful 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, challenged Rice's claim that the right number of troops were in Iraq and criticized the administration's postwar policies.

"We do have some big tactical challenges to get to the strategic goals that we have," she replied. The course of U.S. policy on Iraq "was always going to have ups and downs," Rice said.

Rice said there remain "outposts of tyranny" in the world that require close attention, citing North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"We must remain united in insisting that Iran and North Korea abandon their nuclear weapons ambitions and choose instead the path of peace," she added.

Rice cited her background, growing up in segregated Birmingham, Ala, the granddaughter of a poor cotton farmer. "I am especially indebted to those who fought and sacrificed in the civil rights movement so that I could be here today," said Rice, who like Powell, is black.

She praised Powell as "my friend and mentor." Powell was often out of step with Mr. Bush's inner circle.

If confirmed, Rice, 50, would be the first black woman, and only the second woman after Madeleine Albright, to be America's top diplomat.

Rice, who is Mr. Bush's most trusted foreign policy confidante, pledged to engage in a major bout of "public diplomacy in all of its forms" if confirmed.

"The time for diplomacy is now," she said in a remark that appeared aimed at critics who accuse the administration of go-it-alone tactics.

That brought a sharp retort from the panel's senior Democrat, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware: "The time for diplomacy is long overdue."

Biden told her the United States is "paying a heavy price" for the administration's policy in Iraq.

Rice insisted that the administration's actions in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks — including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — were "difficult, and necessary and right."

Under questioning, Rice also:

  • Said the administration was paying close attention "to the progress or lack of thereof of democracy" in Russia under President Vladimir Putin. Bush meets with Putin on a trip to Europe next month.
  • Agreed with Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., that the United States needs to do more to fight drug trafficking and support democratic and economic reforms in Central and South America, citing "grave challenges to some of these regimes."
  • Said that the Dec. 26 Asian tsunami presented a "wonderful opportunity" for the United States to reach out to countries in the Muslim world and build goodwill, a remark that Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., branded as insensitive to the widespread deaths and destruction caused.

    Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who has been skeptical of the administration's Iraq policies, pressed her further on an exit strategy.

    Declining to offer a timetable, she told Hagel, "Our role is directly proportional to how capable the Iraqis are" in completing a security force.

    "We have to help them get there," she said.

    Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., opened Tuesday's hearing with warm words about Rice, calling her "highly qualified."

    Rice brings a colorful biography to the job. She is a classically trained pianist who has performed with Yo-Yo Ma. She is a skilled figure skater who shares Mr. Bush's passion for exercise, and follows professional sports in obsessive detail. Mr. Bush joked in nominating her that her dream job is really to be commissioner of the National Football League.

    Rice, who is single, was a college student at 15 and a university professor at 26. She was later provost of Stanford University, and has written several books.

    Her previous Washington jobs, including a stint as a foreign policy adviser for Mr. Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, did not require Senate confirmation and the intense scrutiny that goes with it.

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