Rice links Iraq exit to security

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice told senators on Tuesday that a U.S. exit strategy from Iraq is ‘directly proportional’ to Iraq’s ability to defend itself against terrorists after this month’s elections.

Stepping out from her largely behind-the-scenes role as President George W. 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,’ she said. ‘We’re right now focused on security for the (Jan. 30) election.’

Rice told her Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing that spreading democracy through the Middle East remains a top administration foreign-policy objective.

The Palestinian election earlier this month following the death of Yasser Arafat offers ‘a moment of opportunity,’ she said. 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 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.

Rice pledged Tuesday to work to mend and strengthen ties with allies frayed by Iraq. ‘The time for diplomacy is now,’ she told senators at her hearing to replace Colin Powell as secretary of state.

‘The time for diplomacy is long overdue,’ retorted Sen. Joseph Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He told her the United States is ‘paying a heavy price’ for the administration’s policy in Iraq.

Despite pointed questioning from Biden and other committee Democrats, Senate confirmation of Rice – Bush’s most trusted foreign policy confidante – was all but assured.

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.’

‘If I am confirmed, public diplomacy will be a top priority for me and for the professionals I lead,’ Rice said in an apparent attempt to ease concerns of those who suggested Bush’s foreign policy was too unilateral and unaccommodating over the past four years.

Rice was closely grilled on the situation on Iraq, where violence by insurgents continues with just under two weeks to go to elections there.

Biden said the administration must ‘level with the American people’ over an exit strategy and whether U.S. troop levels there are adequate.

‘I would not presume to try to give the president military advice, but I do believe that he got good military advice and I do believe that the plan and the forces that we went in with were appropriate to the task,’ she said.

‘We did meet with some unforeseen circumstances,’ Rice acknowledged.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, a 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.

Sen. John Kerry, the unsuccessful 2004 Demcratic 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.

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