Rice: No Deadline for Iraq Troop Withdrawal

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and tries to reassure members of Congress that the Bush administration's Iraq strategy is on track. But she would not rule out the possibility that U.S. troops could still be in Iraq 10 years from now.

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on Capitol Hill today trying to reassure members of Congress that the Bush administration has a strategy in Iraq, but she would not hazard a guess as to when US troops could come home. NPR's Michele Kelemen has the story.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

It was a rare visit by the secretary of State to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And members on both sides of the aisle called on her to set some clear goals for America's expensive and so far open-ended war in Iraq. Chairman Richard Lugar, a Republican from Indiana, said Americans need a clear and realistic assessment of the progress in Iraq.

(Soundbite of committee meeting)

Senator RICHARD LUGAR (Republican, Indiana): Even if withdrawal time lines are deemed unwise because they might provide a strategic advantage to the insurgency, the American people need to more fully understand the basis upon which our troops are likely to come home.

KELEMEN: Maryland Democrat Paul Sarbanes tried to pin down Secretary Rice.

(Soundbite of committee meeting)

Senator PAUL SARBANES (Democrat, Maryland): Do you think five years from now some American forces will have come out?

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Department of State): Senator, I don't want to speculate. I do know that we're making progress with what the Iraqis themselves are capable of doing. And as they are able to do certain tasks, as they are able to hold their own territory, they will not need us to do that. And so it makes some sense that...

Sen. SARBANES: Well, let me make the question a little easier.

Sec. RICE: ...we would not...

Sen. SARBANES: What about 10 years from now?

Sec. RICE: Senator, I think that even to try and speculate on how many years from now there will be a certain number of American forces is not appropriate.

KELEMEN: Secretary Rice argued that setting timetables would simply play into the hands of insurgents. But Senator Russell Feingold and other Democrats on the committee didn't buy that.

(Soundbite of committee meeting)

Senator RUSSELL FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): I gotta tell you, Madam Secretary, you and the president are an ever-narrowing group of people who believe that this logic is correct. Experts around the world, military experts, people I talk to in Iraq, experts here--just about everyone agrees that our approach, without talking about a public timetable, is feeding the insurgency.

KELEMEN: The strategy Secretary Rice laid out is, as she put it, results-based, not based on a timetable. She said the US has to help Iraqis clear out insurgent strongholds and build up institutions.

(Soundbite of committee meeting)

Sec. RICE: Our strategy is to clear, hold and build. The enemy's strategy is to infect, terrorize and pull down.

KELEMEN: She gave few concrete details about how the US would achieve its goals. But she said the US will do something similar to what it has done in Afghanistan: send diplomats, police trainers and aid workers to work more closely with the US military in what are called provincial reconstruction teams.

(Soundbite of committee meeting)

Sec. RICE: These will be civil military teams working in concert with each of the major subordinate commands, training police, setting up courts and helping local governments with essential services like sewage treatment or irrigation. The first of these new PRTs will take the field next month.

KELEMEN: Secretary Rice also spoke about much broader and long-term goals to democratize the Middle East, starting with Iraq. But senators were quick to remind the secretary of the declining public support for the war. Ohio Republican George Voinovich read a letter from one of his constituents, a father who lost his son in Iraq.

(Soundbite of committee meeting)

Senator GEORGE VOINOVICH (Republican, Ohio): And he said, `In a spirit of helping you gauge public opinion, it's important to tell you that we do not consider the American mission in Iraq noble at all.' And he goes on to say, `We hope members of Congress begin to more seriously question this tragic mistake and call an end to continued financial support for a misguided effort that does not speak well for America and the world.'

KELEMEN: Senator Voinovich said it's important for Secretary Rice to level with the American people. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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