WASHINGTON - Condoleezza Rice won overwhelming support from a Senate committee yesterday to succeed Colin L. Powell as secretary of state, but not before she conceded problems in the training and performance of the Iraqi security forces that she called a key to the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The Foreign Relations Committee, on a 16-2 vote, sent Rice's nomination to the Senate floor with a favorable recommendation, clearing the way for a confirmation vote that Republicans hoped would come this afternoon, shortly after President Bush takes the oath of office for his second term.
Kerry, Boxer oppose
However, Democrats indicated they want extended floor debate on the nomination, which would likely delay action until next week.
Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who carried his party's colors last year, voted against confirming Rice.
He was joined in his opposition by another Democrat, Barbara Boxer of California, who scolded Rice relentlessly for pre-war statements that later proved wrong regarding Saddam Hussein's weapons arsenal, the primary rationale for the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Maryland's Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat, supported the nomination of Rice, Bush's national security adviser during the past four years.
"He believes she has the qualifications and the experience for the job," said Jesse Jacobs, Sarbanes' spokesman.
Sarbanes voted by proxy because he and Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski, the state's other senator, were in Baltimore meeting with officials of Catholic Relief Services just back from Sri Lanka, where they surveyed damage from the South Asia tsunamis.
As the panel was preparing to vote, Powell was saying farewell to the State Department he presided over during Bush's first term. His wife, Alma, beside him, the 35-year Army veteran called the hundreds of cheering State employees gathered in the department's main lobby "my troops" and said, "I will never leave you."
In praise of Rice
He described Rice, whose confirmation by the full Senate is all but assured, as "a dear friend, somebody I have known for many years and who I know will bring gifted leadership to the department and to American foreign policy."
He urged the assemblage to give Rice the same support and loyalty he had enjoyed.
Recounting accomplishments, Powell cited pulling together a worldwide anti-terrorist coalition in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; NATO expansion; easing tensions between nuclear powers India and Pakistan; improved dealings with Russia; and putting U.S.-China relations "on the soundest footing that they have been in decades.
"You are the ones who did it," he told his subordinates moments before he and his wife waded into the crowd to shake hands, amid renewed and extended applause.
He gave short shrift to Iraq, considering how extensively it colored his tenure and often put him at odds with the president, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Powell talked of toppling two of the "most despotic regimes on the face of the earth," Saddam Hussein's in Iraq and the Taliban's in Afghanistan.
At yesterday's Senate hearing, Powell's reputation for caution and independence led Illinois Democrat Barack Obama to urge similar traits on Rice.
"I have no difficulty telling the president exactly what I think. I've done that for four years," she replied. "Sometimes he agrees and sometimes he doesn't."
But she made it clear that she has no intention of disclosing disagreements: "I want to be clearly understood. We are one administration, with the president in the lead."
Senators on the Foreign Relations panel, primarily Democrats, chided Rice on a number of issues during her more than 10 hours of testimony, notably her own pre-war statements, but she was pressed most strongly for a disengagement or exit strategy for Iraq.
She refused to give a timeline for withdrawal.
"Our role is directly proportional, I think, Senator, to how capable the Iraqis are," she told Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel on Tuesday, the first day of the hearings that concluded yesterday.
And she repeatedly tied an end of the American military commitment to the ability of Iraqi security forces to defend their country.
But even as she portrayed a professional corps of Iraqi military and police forces as central to the accomplishment of the U.S. mission, she conceded under persistent questioning from Delaware's Joseph R. Biden Jr., the senior Democrat on the panel, that so far their training and performance had fallen short of expectations.
"There are problems with leadership," she said yesterday. "There are problems with desertion. There are problems with absenteeism as well. ... The real test is do they fight when they're put in the field? In some places they've fought well and other places they've not fought well."
Asked for her overall assessment, she replied, "I think we have had problems with the training. I'd be the first to say that." She noted that the Pentagon dispatched retired four-star Gen. Gary Luck to Iraq last week to review the training of Iraqi soldiers and police.
Rice and Biden disagreed over the number of trained Iraqi security forces. Rice said 120,000; Biden said the figure was vastly less, in the range of 14,000.
The issue of how many Iraqi security forces are ready to shoulder more responsibility has been elusive. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in September that about 145,000 Iraqi forces would be trained and equipped by the January election.
But last month Army Brig. Gen. David Rodriguez, a member of the joint staff, placed the number at 125,000 during a session with reporters at the Pentagon. "The Iraqi troops continue to make progress," Rodriguez said. However, he conceded that they were still not able or not numerous enough to handle current security needs.
A document dated Jan. 12 on the Pentagon Web site places the number of "trained/on hand" Iraqi security forces at nearly 127,000, including about 53,000 police and 40,000 Iraqi National Guard troops.
On the question of trained Iraqis, Biden told Rice, "For God's sake, don't listen to Rumsfeld. He doesn't know what in the hell he's talking about on this."
Staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.