RICE AT SENATE HEARING
Dennis Cook  /  AP
Secretary of state nominee Condoleezza Rice, left, began her confirmation hearing Tuesday with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., at her side. Feinstein is a friend from Rice’s years in California.
NBC News and news services
updated 1/18/2005 8:13:09 PM ET 2005-01-19T01:13:09

Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s nominee to be secretary of state, insisted Tuesday that a U.S. exit strategy from Iraq depended on the country’s ability to defend itself against terrorists after this month’s elections. Under intense questioning from Democrats, John Kerry among them, she vowed to work to mend ties with allies frayed by the war to depose Saddam Hussein.

“The world is coming together behind the idea that we have to succeed in Iraq,” Rice said at a confirmation hearing on her nomination to replace Colin Powell as the nation’s top diplomat.

But Rice said it was impossible to give a timetable for U.S. disengagement. “The goal is to get the mission accomplished,” she told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We’re right now focused on security for the election,” scheduled for Jan. 30.

The committee was expected to vote to support Rice on Wednesday morning, followed by a vote of the full Senate later in the day or Thursday. Her confirmation is considered almost certain.

Rice: Weapons not only Saddam threat
Many Democrats were skeptical. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., confronted Rice with her own words to argue that as Bush’s national security adviser, she had contradicted herself on Saddam’s weapons capabilities.

“You sent them [U.S. troops] in there because of weapons of mass destruction. Later, the mission changed when there were none,” Boxer told Rice. Video: Rice in the hot seat

“It wasn’t just weapons of mass destruction,” Rice responded, saying Saddam supported terrorism, attacked Kuwait and Israel, and needed to be removed given the new U.S. threat perception after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Rice was visibly irked when Boxer said, “I personally believe — this is my personal belief — that your loyalty to this mission to sell this war overwhelmed your respect for the truth.”

“We can have this discussion in any way that you would like, but I really hope you will refrain from impugning my integrity,” Rice replied. “I really hope that you will not imply that I take the truth lightly.”

Kerry, D-Mass., in his first appearance at the Foreign Relations Committee since his unsuccessful presidential bid, was withering in his criticism, stating that he was reserving a decision on whether to vote for Rice.

Kerry was particularly critical of Rice’s answers to Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., on the number of trained Iraqi forces and the U.S. exit strategy in Iraq.

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Troop strength called adequate
Rice said she felt that troop strength going into Iraq was adequate and that “we think the number [of Iraqi forces] right now is somewhere over 120,000.”

Video: Testy exchange

Biden said he had been to Iraq three times and believed that her estimate was too high. “I think you’ll find, if you speak to the folks on the ground, they don’t think there’s more than 4,000 actually trained Iraqi forces,” he said.

The discrepancy arose because Rice and Biden were counting different things. While the Defense Department does estimate the Iraqi army at 4,000 strong, the number Biden cited, it estimates all Iraqi forces — including the police and the national guard — at more than 120,000, the number used by Rice.

Training issues acknowledged
Biden continued that “the exit strategy for America is a trained force of several hundred thousand people. We’re talking about a year or more to get anywhere close to that. We should level with the American people about it.”

Rice responded: “We think that among those people there are clearly, continue to be, questions about on-duty time — that is, people who don’t report for duty — and so this is being looked at.”

She said the Defense Department was working to “address some of these problems of leadership and morale and desertion.”

Kerry said every Arab leader he had talked to expressed a willingness to train more Iraqi military but had been rebuffed by the United States. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, he said, had trained only 147 officers and did not understand why his training offers were not being accepted.

Current U.S. policy is “growing the insurgency, not diminishing it,” Kerry said, adding that he met last week with Iraqis in Kirkuk, Mosul and elsewhere who said they were eager to help make democracy work but were not getting the support they needed from Baghdad.

“We went in to rescue Iraq from Saddam Hussein, now I think we have to rescue our policy from ourselves,” added Kerry. ”I don’t take any joy in this but it’s ... the reality we’ve got to deal with. We’ve got kids dying over there.”

Rice said, “We need to give them a chance here,” adding that while the political process was slow, “over time it gets better.”

‘Time for diplomacy’
In her opening statement, Rice said: “We must use American diplomacy to help create a balance of power in the world that favors freedom. And the time for diplomacy is now.” 

“This time of global transformation calls for transformational diplomacy,” Rice added. “More than ever, America’s diplomats will need to be active in spreading democracy, fighting terror, reducing poverty and doing our part to protect the American homeland.”

Rice emphasized that a transformed U.S. diplomatic effort would not be one-sided. “We will increase our exchanges with the rest of the world,” she stated. “Our interaction with the rest of the world must be a conversation, not a monologue.”

Biden responded: “Despite our great military might we are in my view more alone in the world than we’ve been in any time in recent memory. The time for diplomacy, in my view, is long overdue.”

‘Moment of opportunity’ in Middle East
Rice emphasized that spreading democracy through the Middle East remained a top Bush administration priority and that “the stakes could not be higher.”

The Palestinian election after the death of Yasser Arafat offered “a moment of opportunity,” Rice said, but she stressed that Palestinian leaders needed to do more to end acts of terrorism against Israel, saying peace hopes would be dashed if such violence continued.

“As long as the broader Middle East remains a region of tyranny and despair and anger, it will produce extremists and movements that threaten the safety of Americans and our friends,” she said.

She raised the possibility that Bush might name an envoy to the Palestinians. “No one has objections in principle” to such an envoy, she said, but “it is a question over whether that is appropriate” at this time.

‘Outposts of tyranny’
Rice said there also remained other “outposts of tyranny” in the world that required close attention, citing North Korea, Iraq, Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Myanmar, also known as Burma.

She sent an especially strong message to North Korea, saying it “should understand fully that we have a deterrent against any North Korean action or attempts at action, because we have a very strong alliance with South Korea.”

And Syria needed to respond to “entreaties” from the United States for more cooperation on controlling insurgents in Iraq, she said, warning: “It is fair to say the Syrian government is behaving in way that could, unfortunately, lead to long-term bad relations with the United States.”

If confirmed, Rice would be the only the second woman after Madeleine Albright to be America’s top diplomat. Rice stressed 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 outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell, is African American.

Rice praised Powell, who was often out of step with Bush’s inner circle, as “my friend and mentor.”

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and Tamara Kupperman in Washington, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Kerry seeks answers

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