Rice, Hagel Spar at Senate Hearing on Iraq

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice answers questions from Sen. Chuck Hagel Thursday. i i

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice answers questions from Sen. Chuck Hagel Thursday. Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice answers questions from Sen. Chuck Hagel Thursday.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice answers questions from Sen. Chuck Hagel Thursday.

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Hostile questioning and tense exchanges marked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday. She was on a mission to defend President Bush's plans for an expanded troop presence in Iraq.

Among the calmer observations made to Rice came from Delaware's Sen. Joe Biden, a Democrat.

"I believe the president's strategy is not a solution, Secretary Rice," Biden said. "I believe it's a tragic mistake."

Republicans had sharp questions, too, including Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota:

"To put the lives of Americans more in the center of that, without first having something that's substantial, something we can point to, other than this sense of trust... other than looking somebody in the eye and having a conversation... I'm not prepared to support that," Coleman said.

When Rice started describing progress in Iraq, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska interrupted:

"Your intelligence and mine is a lot different," Hagel said. "To sit there and say that... Madame Secretary, that's just not true. That is not true."

"There is a point that I'd like to make about Iraqis killing Iraqis... what that really is," Rice said.

"Well, what that is is pretty obvious to me, really," Hagel said.

Bush Advisers Promote His New Plan for Iraq

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Bush administration's plan for Iraq. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Audio: U.S. Iraq Policy

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joing Chiefs of Staff, talk to the media about U.S. policy in Iraq.

At a news conference Thursday morning, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that it's "hard to say" how long President Bush's proposed troop increase might last.

"We'll have to see in terms of the length of time," Gates told the White House press corps. "It's viewed as a temporary surge. But I think no one has a really clear idea of how long that might be."

Gates was speaking alongside Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in a news conference designed to sell the president's new Iraq strategy.

Gates also announced plans to increase the number of U.S. soldiers and Marines by 92,000 over the next five years. The change has been in the works for some time, he said, and would have been necessary regardless of the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq.

Both Gates and Rice were treading a fine line when asked what might happen if Iraq does not fulfill the commitments it has undertaken.

"The Iraqis have devised their own strategy — political, economic and military — and our efforts will support theirs," Rice stressed. "Among Americans and Iraqis, there is no confusion over one basic fact: It is the Iraqis who are responsible for what kind of country Iraq will be."

But the Bush plan does not stipulate deadlines for Iraq to assume such political, economic or military commitments. Nor does it lay out a standard to judge whether they have succeeded.

At the press conference, Rice said the U.S. needs to give some "breathing space" to Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Malaki and his government.

Between television interviews this morning, an open television microphone picked up Rice saying, "I don't want to descend on the Maliki government and look like we, you know, just sort of beat their brains out."

Other news from the press conference:

—Secretary Rice offered more harsh words for Iran and Syria. Although the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended diplomatic engagement with the two countries last month, the Bush administration has ruled that out. "Syria and Iran should end their destabilizing behavior in the region," Rice warned. "The United States will defend its interests and those of our friends and allies in this vital region."

—Rice named Ambassador Tim Carney as the administration's new coordinator for Iraq transitional assistance — a new position. A career foreign service officer, Carney has served as ambassador to Sudan and Haiti.

—Asked if the new U.S. plan would include trying to arrest or kill Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, Gates replied, "I'm not going to hang specific targets on specific people, but all law breakers are susceptible to being detained in this — or taken care of in this campaign."

Sadr is an important supporter of Prime Minister Maliki's. But his Mehdi Army has fought U.S. troops twice since the 2003 invasion, and his speeches are virulently anti-American.

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