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Rice spars with Democrats in hearing

Secretary of state nominee defends Iraq policy before Senate panel

Condoleezza Rice appears Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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Tense moments on Capitol Hill as senators grill Condoleezza Rice.

Among Rice's remarks in her opening statement: "The time for diplomacy is now."
Is Condoleezza Rice a good choice for Secretary of State?
Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of State
George W. Bush

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Condoleezza Rice defended the war in Iraq during her Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, sparring with one Democrat who suggested her loyalty to President Bush and support for the conflict "overwhelmed your respect for the truth."

Rice bristled at the comment by Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. "I have to say that I have never, ever, lost respect for the truth in the service of anything," she said.

Rice, who has been Bush's national security adviser for the past four years, faced more than nine hours of questioning before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on her nomination to replace Colin Powell as secretary of state

The panel is scheduled to reconvene the hearing for more questions Wednesday, and Chairman Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, said the full Senate could vote on the nomination as early as Thursday.

Senators on both sides of the aisle predicted Rice would be confirmed, but some Democrats used the hearing to ask Rice tough questions.

Boxer was particularly aggressive, pointing out what she said were inconsistencies in Rice's statements about the imminent threat of nuclear weapons in Iraq.

"This is a pattern here of what I see from you," Boxer said. "It's very troubling. ... It's hard for me to let go of this war because people are still dying."

She said Rice has not acknowledged those deaths, has not laid out an exit strategy for Iraq and has been unwilling to admit mistakes -- including going to war over weapons of mass destruction found later not to exist. (WMD report)

"If you can't admit to this mistake, I hope that you will rethink it," Boxer said.

"Senator, we can have this discussion in any way that you would like," Rice replied. "But I really hope that you will refrain from impugning my integrity."

Rice insisted the war in Iraq was not launched solely over WMD. Deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, she said, welcomed terrorists, attacked his own neighbors and paid suicide bombers in the conflict between Israel and Palestinians.

But Boxer said the resolution that authorized Bush to launch the war in Iraq talked about "WMD, period."

"Let's not rewrite history, it's too soon for that," Boxer said.

Boxer and other Democrats also criticized Rice for declining to answer when asked whether she considered some extreme interrogation tactics to be torture.

Imbalance cited

Sen. Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, criticized the administration for focusing too much on Iraq and allowing other terrorism hot spots, such as Somalia, to fester and grow.

"I think the balance has not been correct," he said.

But Rice insisted: "I do sit every day and look at the terrorist threat report that's coming in. ... We are making a lot of progress on this."

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rice said the United States is willing to support the government of new Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But she said Arab states must crack down on the incitement of hatred against Israel.

On Iran, she said the international community has communicated that Tehran "cannot be a legitimate participant in the international system, in international politics, and pursue a nuclear weapon."

On North Korea, also believed to be developing nuclear weapons, Rice held out the prospect of improved ties with Pyongyang's isolated Stalinist government.

She warned that the United States has its own deterrent to any North Korean military action.

But she said the United States "has no intention to attack North Korea," and she held out the prospect of a security guarantee for North Korea if it renounced its nuclear ambitions.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee last year, accused the administration of under-funding efforts to secure nuclear material in the former Soviet republics.

"I don't understand how the administration can choose to spend ... close to $300 billion in Iraq to disarm weapons that weren't there, and yet $1 billion a year to secure weapons that we know are there," he said.

Rice, who was a Soviet expert in the first Bush administration, said she was "completely and totally dedicated" to the program, and it would be a topic of discussion in an upcoming summit meeting between Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Other topics of questioning included the U.S. trade deficit, the empowerment of women internationally and efforts in areas such as Kosovo, the Sudan, Haiti and Central America -- as well as U.S. relations with allies in Europe.

Kerry presses on Iraq

Iraq dominated the early hours of Tuesday's hearing.

Kerry, who recently returned from Iraq, said U.S. policy "is growing the insurgency, not diminishing it."

"We went in to rescue Iraq from Saddam Hussein," he said. "Now, I think, we have to rescue our policy from ourselves."

Kerry said he had talked to leaders in a number of Arab and European countries, who told him that they had offered to do more to help in Iraq, but that those offers were rebuffed.

Rice conceded the nation faces "tactical challenges" and acknowledged some bad decisions were made, but said she was unaware that any offers of help from other nations had been rejected.

Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel asked Rice what the U.S. exit strategy would be after the January 30 Iraqi elections.

Rice said she was reluctant to give any timetable, but said that "our role is directly proportional ... to how capable the Iraqis are."

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the committee's ranking Democrat, said the United States has paid a "heavy price" for the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war.

"Relations with many of our oldest friends are, quite frankly, scraping the bottom right now," Biden said.

Rice has faced heated questioning before. In April, she appeared before the 9/11 commission after former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke went public with claims that the Bush administration botched warnings of the al Qaeda hijacking plot. (Full story)

Rice: 'The time for diplomacy is now'

In her opening remarks, Rice compared the world situation to the challenges the United States and its allies faced at the end of World War II, when Europe and Japan lay in ruins and the Soviet Union was a rising threat.

"The challenges we face today are no less daunting," she said. "America and the free world are once again engaged in a long-term struggle against an ideology of hatred and tyranny and terror and hopelessness.

"And we must confront these challenges with the same vision and the same courage and the same boldness that dominated our post-world war period."

Rice, 50, referred to her own background, which her allies say will help her on the world stage. Born a minister's daughter in segregated Alabama in 1954, Rice entered college at 15 and by 26 had earned a doctorate in international affairs. (Profile)

Lugar opened the hearing by praising Rice for her accomplishments and public service. In a show of bipartisanship, Democrat Diane Feinstein of California introduced Rice before she was sworn in to testify.

If confirmed, Rice would be the first black woman -- and only the second woman -- to head the State Department.

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