WASHINGTON - Secretary of state nominee Condoleezza Rice defended herself yesterday against sharp, at times withering, criticism of her past statements on Iraq as she resisted providing an exit strategy for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the war-torn country.
Rice, at a confirmation hearing, was largely unflappable - if occasionally uncomfortable - as members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee peppered her with questions on a broad spectrum of international trouble spots. But the issue of how to disengage from Iraq remained the center of gravity for the nearly nine-hour interrogation session.
In what seemed her most nuanced response to the question, she said, "I can't give a time line, but I think we will know when the Iraqis are able to have in place institutions, no matter how fragile and no matter how young, where they're actually beginning to try to solve their own problems within those institutions."
She went on to say that the administration does not have to see "an Iraq that is a fully democratized, mature economy, fully able to deal with all of its divisions" to consider its policy a success.
"That's going to take a very, very, very long time," she said. "What we have to see is that they've been launched on a path to be able to achieve that."
Earlier in the session, she said that an exit strategy was dependent on Iraq's ability to defend itself after national elections scheduled for Jan. 30.
"The task of the Iraqis is to find a way forward from their elections for political reconciliation," she said. "And we can, of course, try to help in that and do what we can to support that effort. But that's largely an Iraqi task."
Despite the grilling, Rice, 50, President Bush's national security adviser during his first four years, is all but assured of quick confirmation to succeed Colin L. Powell. Only panel member John Kerry of Massachusetts, the failed Democratic presidential nominee last year, said he might vote against her, though he seemed less inclined to oppose her as the hearing ended.
If confirmed, Rice, whose childhood was spent in segregated Birmingham, Ala., would be the first African-American woman and the second woman to hold the nation's top diplomatic post.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, in the harshest indictment, castigated Rice for pre-war statements that later proved false about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction arsenal, notably her warning of "a mushroom cloud" and her assertion that aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq were only "suited for nuclear weapons programs."
Said Boxer: "Your loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell this war, overwhelmed your respect for the truth."
Stung, Rice retorted, "I have to say that I have never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything. It is not my nature. It is not my character. And I would hope that we can have this conversation and discuss what happened before and what went on before and what I said without impugning my credibility or my integrity."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, also a California Democrat, introduced Rice, a former Stanford University provost, to the committee, noting her close personal and professional relationship with Bush, something Powell did not enjoy to the same degree.
"My sense is that the president trusts her implicitly," said Feinstein. When Rice meets with world leaders, the senator added, "there will be no doubt that she speaks for and on behalf of the president."
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, said closeness to the president was not a sufficient credential for the nation's senior diplomat.
"I just note that it's not enough to have the ear of the president. I think the secretary of state must also win the ear of the world."
Rice, in her opening statement, said she was honored to be nominated "at this critical time - a time of challenge and hope and opportunity for America, and for the entire world." She also paid tribute to Powell, whom she called "my friend and my mentor."
She said the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington were "difficult and necessary and right."
"This was never going to be easy," Rice said. "It was always going to have ups and downs. I'm sure that we have multiple, many decisions, some of which were good, some of which might not have been good. But the strategic decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein was the right one."
In what seemed to be a shift away from the unilateralist foreign policy that critics accuse Bush of pursuing, she said, "The time for diplomacy is now."
This led Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the panel, to respond, "The time for diplomacy, in my view, is long overdue."
Biden said the United States "is more alone in the world than we have been in any time in recent memory."
Rice said she was committed to working with both Congress and U.S. friends and allies, many of whom have been disaffected by what they view as a go-it-alone policy and the Iraq war.
"If confirmed," she said, "I will work with the members of this Congress from both sides of the aisle to build a strong bipartisan consensus behind American foreign policy. I will seek to strengthen our alliances, to support our friends and to make the world safer and better."
On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, she said she intends to be fully engaged and called the election of Mahmoud Abbas as head of the Palestinian Authority and Israel's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip "a really good opportunity" for peace.
"I don't think we can afford to miss this opportunity if the parties themselves are willing to take advantage of the opportunity," she said. As for dispatching a special envoy to the region, she said there were no immediate plans to do so.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, pressed Rice to condemn as "torture" certain interrogation methods, including immersing restrained detainees under water. She declined, saying, "I'm not going to give views on specific interrogation techniques."
Dodd described her answer as "disappointing," then said, "Do me a favor. Spend 15 minutes with John McCain." McCain, an Arizona Republican senator, spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and was routinely subjected to torture.