Rice Links Iraq Withdrawal to Security

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Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice told senators on Tuesday that a U.S. exit strategy from Iraq depends on that country's ability to defend itself against terrorists after this month's elections. She vowed to work to ease ties with allies frayed by U.S. policy there.

"The world is coming together behind the idea that we have to succeed in Iraq," she asserted at a confirmation hearing on her nomination to replace Colin Powell in the top foreign policy post.

Stepping out from her largely behind-the-scenes role as President Bush (news - web sites)'s national security adviser, Rice said she could not give Congress a timetable for American disengagement.

"The goal is to get the mission accomplished," Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We're right now focused on security for the (Jan. 30) election."

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 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.

While the confirmation of Rice was all but assured, committee Democrats used the hearing to vent criticism of Bush Iraq policies.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the unsuccessful 2004 Democratic 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.

If confirmed, Rice, 50, would be the first black woman, and only the second woman after Madeleine Albright, to be America's top diplomat.

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.

Rice cited 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 Powell, is black.

She praised Powell as "my friend and mentor." Powell was often out of step with Bush's inner circle.

Rice, who is Bush's most trusted foreign policy confidante, pledged to engage in a major 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 of Delaware: "The time for diplomacy is long overdue."

Biden told her the United States is "paying a heavy price" for the administration's policy in Iraq.

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."