WASHINGTON, AP -Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her first Capitol Hill appearance in eight months, to face a jittery Congress seeking specifics about the United States” path to success in Iraq.
Republicans and Democrats alike are raising questions about the Bush administration”s diplomatic and military plans in Iraq amid a rising U.S. death toll, soaring costs and slumping public support for the war.
"The president and Congress must be clear with the American people about the stakes involved and the difficulties yet to come," Sen. Richard Lugar (news, bio, voting record), R-Ind., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in remarks prepared for delivery at a Wednesday hearing where Rice was appearing.
"Even if withdrawal timelines 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," Lugar said.
By State Department design, Rice was testifying before Lugar”s committee just days after Iraq apparently approved its first constitution since a U.S.-led coalition ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
With President Bush”s poll numbers dragged down by public discomfort over Iraq, Rice was seeking to reassure lawmakers — who are feeling the heat from their war-weary constituents — that U.S. policies toward Iraq are sound.
But committee members from both political parties were expected to press Rice on options for strengthening security, advancing the political process and strengthening the economy in Iraq.
Saturday”s vote was a political milestone on Iraq”s path to forming a legitimate democratic government. Efforts by skeptical Sunni Arabs to defeat the charter appear to have failed, but the Bush administration has embraced their unexpectedly large turnout at the polls as a sign democracy is taking root.
Lugar called the vote a welcome development, while noting, "The larger hope of reaching a political settlement between all the major ethnic groups has not been realized."
Urging caution, he added, "We cannot assume that the establishment of democratic institutions in Iraq in the short term will yield corresponding diminishment in the insurgency."
The Bush administration contends that progress on political and military fronts is linked. It believes that as Iraqis take steps to establish a new government, minority Sunnis will gain confidence in the democracy and quell the insurgency.
The next step is in December, when Iraqis elect a new parliament and a new government — the first permanent, constitutional government since Saddam”s regime ended.
When Iraqis assume responsibility for both running and securing their own country, the administration hopes the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq will be able to start returning home. But the White House has refused to put a timetable on possible withdrawal.
That”s frustrated Democrats, who for the better part of the year have been calling for a pullout plan. In recent months, Republicans also have started to voice concerns that the administration”s exit strategy is murky.
Rice”s appearance, her third before the committee since the president nominated his former national security adviser to lead the State Department, follows her diplomatic missions last week to Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, France, Russia and Britain. Rice discussed with European allies U.S. concerns about Iran”s disputed nuclear weapons program and Syria”s alleged continued involvement in Lebanese politics.
In recent weeks, the United States has stepped up its accusations that Iran and Syria are interfering in neighboring Iraq.
U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey, a senior adviser to Rice on Iraq, said Tuesday that Iran and Syria "are not being helpful in terms of controlling borders and political processes."
"It is very important for Iraq to have normal relations with all of its neighbors, including Syria and Iran, and it is very important for those neighbors to behave," Jeffrey added.
Wednesday”s was the 30th hearing the committee has held on Iraq since January 2003. Lawmakers have been gearing up for the hearing since summer, when the panel sought the opinions of top foreign policy scholars on ways to improve U.S. policy in Iraq.