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Rice: No Timetable For Iraq Exit

Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice gave no ground in Senate questioning Tuesday on whether the United States was fully prepared for war and its aftermath in Iraq, and refused to give a timetable for when U.S. troops can leave the country.

Rice seemed headed for easy confirmation by the Senate as President George W. Bush's choice to be the country's top diplomat. Former Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry was the only member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who told Rice that she might not win his vote.

"This was never going to be easy," Rice said during a confirmation hearing in which she painted an optimistic picture of the future in Iraq and for resolution of the long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

"It was always going to have ups and downs. I'm sure that we have made many decisions, some of which were good, some of which might not have been good, but the ouster of Saddam Hussein was worth the price, Rice said. "I think we made the right decision to overthrow him."

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

Asked whether, with the benefit of hindsight, she would commit more American troops to Iraq, Rice said that despite "some unforeseen circumstances" she was satisfied with the numbers.

A U.S. exit strategy depends on Iraq's country's ability to defend itself against terrorists after this month's elections, Rice said.

"Our role is directly proportional ... to how capable the Iraqis are," Rice said in response to forceful questioning from a Republican, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

"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 pledged to work to ease ties with allies frayed by U.S. policy there.

If confirmed Rice, 50, would be the first black woman to lead the State Department. She would replace the popular Colin Powell as America's most visible face abroad. As White House national security adviser for the last four years, Rice was Bush's most trusted foreign affairs adviser and a main architect of the administration's policies in Iraq, Europe and elsewhere.

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.

    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 hope for peace cannot withstand continued violence.

    "No one has objections in principle" to the naming of a new presidential envoy to help shepherd the peace process, Rice said, but "it is a question over whether that is appropriate" at this time.

    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.

    Asked about reports from U.S. lawmakers visiting Pyongyang that North Korea was ready to resume negotiations over its nuclear ambitions, Rice said "we have heard nothing," from the country's leaders.

    "I hope they do intend to resume the six-party talks," Rice said, referring to negotiations in which the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia are trying to persuade North Korea to halt development of nuclear weapons.

    Rice also pledged to embrace public diplomacy, the face-to-face struggle to win support for U.S. policies and ideals abroad. 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: "The time for diplomacy is long overdue."

    Rice answered the day's harshest questioning, from Sen. Barbara Boxer, with a rare note of strain in her voice. Boxer came close to accusing Rice of having lied in her public statements about the run-up to war in Iraq.

    "Your loyalty to your mission you were given overwhelmed your respect for the truth, and I don't say it lightly," Boxer said.

    "I have never lost respect for the truth in anything," Rice replied coolly. "It is not my nature, it is not my character ... and I hope we can have this discussion without impugning my credibility."

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