Rice Defends Her Integrity in Clash Over Iraq
By Arshad Mohammed and Saul Hudson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday defended her integrity and honesty as she clashed with senators about Iraq and vowed to press diplomacy to repair ties strained by the war.
Testifying at her U.S. Senate confirmation hearing, Rice was questioned about the number of U.S. troops sent to Iraq, the adequacy of Iraqi forces being trained to replace them and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction that were the Bush administration’s central justification for the war.
Rice, whose confirmation as the first black woman secretary of state is all but assured in the Republican-led Senate, said she believed the White House sent enough U.S. troops to Iraq despite the raging insurgency that erupted after the invasion.
In a heated exchange in an otherwise generally cordial hearing, California Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer argued the Bush administration had shifted its justification for the war because it had failed to find stocks of biological and chemical weapons it had asserted were there.
“You sent them in there because of weapons of mass destruction. Later the mission changed when there were none,” Boxer told Rice. “Let’s not rewrite history, it’s too soon to do that.”
“It wasn’t just weapons of mass destruction,” Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saying former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein supported terrorism, attacked Kuwait and Israel and needed to be removed given the new U.S. threat perception after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
“We can have this discussion in any way that you would like, but I really hope that you will refrain from impugning my integrity,” Rice told Boxer. “I really hope that you will not imply that I take the truth lightly.”
The exchange was the most pointed in a hearing that included disagreements between Rice and Democrats on the numbers of trained Iraqi troops — the linchpin of the U.S. exit strategy — and the numbers of U.S. troops sent to stabilize Iraq.
Rice said she believed there were more than 120,000 trained Iraqi forces — acknowledging problems of absenteeism and desertion — but drew a quick rebuke from Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who said he thought the number was closer to 4,000.
The discrepancy might be explained by a Jan. 12 State Department report that shows 126,961 Iraqi forces — including 53,520 police and 40,063 national guard — as trained but only 4,159 regular Army.
If confirmed, Rice will take on many of the huge challenges facing the Bush administration: the raging insurgency in Iraq, the rift with U.S. allies in Europe, concerns about another attack like Sept. 11, 2001, and U.S. unpopularity abroad.
Rice said she would seek to rebuild U.S. alliances and to spread freedom around the world — stances met with skepticism by critics who regard the Bush administration’s foreign policy as marked by go-it-alone, America first tendencies.
“We must use American diplomacy to help create a balance of power in the world that favors freedom,” Rice told the committee. “And the time for diplomacy is now.”
Biden shot back: “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.”
“We went in to rescue Iraq from Saddam Hussein, now I think we have to rescue our policy from ourselves,” added Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who failed to unseat Bush. “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 declined to predict when U.S. soldiers may come home from Iraq and said the U.S. exit strategy was tied to training Iraqi forces to replace the roughly 150,000 U.S. soldiers still in the country 21 months after Saddam was toppled.
“Our role is directly proportional, I think, to how capable the Iraqis are,” she said.
Rice was national security adviser during Bush’s tumultuous first term, which was marked by the Sept. 11 hijacked airliner attacks, the resulting U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and arguably, the worst rift with Europe since World War II.
A Soviet specialist, Rice said preserving Russia’s democracy was vital to U.S.-Russian relations amid worries the Kremlin is turning increasingly authoritarian, and she promised to work “personally” to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Bush has chosen the 50-year-old former Stanford provost to replace Colin Powell, widely admired and often seen as the Cabinet’s lonesome dove stressing diplomacy to solve crises.