Rice Takes Over As Top U.S. Diplomat

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Declaring "history is calling us," Condoleezza Rice took over Thursday as America's 66th secretary of state to confront an agenda laden with difficult and potentially explosive foreign policy problems.

At the top is a grinding war in Iraq that has taken the lives of more than 1,400 U.S. troops.

But Rice exuded confidence as she entered the State Department, telling employees that "it's great to be here," and declaring that "democracy will take hold" around the world as it did in Germany and Japan after World War II.

At the end of next week, Rice is expected to undertake her first overseas venture as secretary of state, going to Europe, the Middle East and possibly other regions.

Among her goals are mending relations with U.S. allies in Europe and assessing prospects for Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Known during her four years as President Bush's national security assistant as remote and reserved, Rice pleased hundreds of employees crammed into a State Department lobby with the declaration her door will be open to them.

"I need your ideas," she said.

Echoing Bush's inaugural speech, Rice promised, "America will stand for freedom and for liberty."

"That's our charge, that's our calling," she said and then started her first day on the job with telephone calls to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini and other foreign officials.

She planned to attend an Iraq meeting at the White House and another one at the State Department on the tsunami disaster in Asia.

Lunch was set with Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, an old friend.

Already in place, having arrived from her White House office overnight, were a Cleveland Browns helmet and several footballs. Rice is a devoted sports fan.

During Senate confirmation hearings last week in which she was peppered with 390 oral and written questions, Rice was strongly challenged on Iraq and the war. She gave no indication that she would recommend any change in U.S. strategy designed to overcome insurgents and steer Iraq toward democracy.

However, she did acknowledge problems, citing desertions and poor leadership among the Iraqi security forces that are supposed to take charge of pacifying the country.

Rice did not hint at changes in diplomatic efforts to stop nuclear weapons development in Iran and North Korea.

However, on the Middle East, she seized on the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian leader as the kind of opening that would impel her to take on an active and personal role in trying to promote negotiations with Israel.

Her arrival at the State Department was orchestrated for an enthusiastic welcome by employees in the same mezzanine where Colin Powell bid farewell last week. Rice was sworn in Wednesday night by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card in his West Wing office. Her designated replacement as national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, held the Bible.

Bush planned to attend a ceremonial swearing-in Friday at the State Department, with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg administering the oath.

Rice, a one-time Stanford academic and analyst of the now-defunct Soviet Union, is the first black woman to hold the job of secretary of state. The first woman was Madeleine Albright; Powell was the first black man.

In her arrival statement, Rice said the diplomatic corps would reflect America's ethnic and religious diversity. "It's extremely important lesson in world where difference is still a license to kill," she said.

Rice is about a week behind schedule, delayed by critical Democratic senators who delayed confirmation. The Senate voted 85-13 to confirm her Wednesday. In history, only Henry Clay, who was confirmed as secretary of state in 1825 by a vote of 27-14, drew more opposition. Henry Kissinger was approved 78-7, Dean Acheson 83-6 and Alexander Haig 93-6.

Twelve Democrats and one independent, Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, opposed Rice's confirmation. Several other Democrats criticized U.S. policy and Rice's role in helping to shape it as President Bush's assistant for national security.