- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met hostility yesterday on Capitol Hill when they tried to defend President Bush’s decision to send about 21,500 more combat troops to Iraq.

“I believe it’s a tragic mistake,” said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of five presidential aspirants on the panel that questioned Miss Rice.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, noted Miss Rice has no children of her own to lose overseas, as Democrats flexed their new majority to force debate on Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy — something they said has been missing under Republican control.

“Who pays the price?” Mrs. Boxer repeatedly demanded. “You’re not going to pay a particular price,” she told Miss Rice, because the secretary has no “immediate family” at risk.

The comments came after Miss Rice opened the hearing by acknowledging widespread concerns about the war and called for “a national imperative not to fail in Iraq.”

“Americans broadly agree — and we in the administration count ourselves among them — that the situation in Iraq is unacceptable,” said Miss Rice.

Neither Miss Rice nor Mr. Gates guaranteed that the troop surge announced by Mr. Bush on Wednesday night will succeed in stabilizing Baghdad, but they said there were indications that it would. They said it will be clear within a couple of months whether the Iraqis will fulfill their commitment to crack down on militias and death squads.

“I don’t think anybody has a definite idea of how long a surge would last,” Mr. Gates told the House Armed Services Committee. “I think for most of us, in our minds, we are thinking of it as a matter of months, not 18 months or two years.”

The secretary, who took charge of the Pentagon from Donald H. Rumsfeld last month and was joined by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace, said the additional troops would arrive in Iraq in waves and suggested that some may be held back if the Iraqi government does not keep its end of the bargain.

“American patience is limited, and obviously if the Iraqis fail to maintain their commitments we’ll have to revisit our strategy,” Mr. Gates said.

The administration pleaded for Congress to study the proposal rather than ruling it out immediately, as Mr. Bush and top members of his national security team began their first push for support.

While his secretaries were taking the heat, Mr. Bush traveled to the friendlier environs of Fort Benning, Ga., where he cautioned that the troop increase “is not going to yield immediate results. It’s going to take awhile.”

Mr. Bush’s plan, outlined in a prime-time address to the nation, would raise troop levels in Iraq by 21,500 — from 132,000 to 153,500 — at a cost of $5.6 billion. It also calls for the Iraqi government to increase its own forces and to do more to quell sectarian violence.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, promised to give the new plan careful consideration, but he said on the Senate floor, “In choosing to escalate the war, the president virtually stands alone.”

Many of the Senate panel’s Republicans also were critical, including Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, John E. Sununu of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

“I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out,” Mr. Hagel said.

Miss Rice engaged in a tense exchange with Mr. Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and longtime critic of Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy, disputing his characterization of Mr. Bush’s buildup as an “escalation.”

“Putting in 22,000 more troops is not an escalation?” Mr. Hagel asked. “Would you call it a decrease?”

Miss Rice replied: “I would call it, Senator, an augmentation that allows the Iraqis to deal with this very serious problem that they have in Baghdad.”

Mr. Hagel told Miss Rice, “Madame Secretary, Iraqis are killing Iraqis. We are in a civil war. This is sectarian violence out of control.”

She disputed that Iraq was in the throes of a civil war. To that, Mr. Hagel said, “To sit there and say that, that’s just not true.”

Meanwhile, after a meeting at the White House, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, expressed both doubts and optimism about the strategy.

“I do not guarantee victory or success,” Mr. McCain told reporters. “If we do fail, there is going to be chaos in the region, and I believe that we would pay an even heavier price in American blood and treasure.”

Miss Rice, in comments overheard on an open microphone between TV interviews, said she did not plan to “descend” on Baghdad during a Middle East trip beginning today, because it is not the time to “beat their brains out.”

The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should be given some “breathing space” after listening to Mr. Bush describe the situation in Iraq as unacceptable, she said.

The secretary yesterday appointed a retired career diplomat, Timothy Carney, to coordinate economic aid and reconstruction efforts in Baghdad. Mr. Carney, a former ambassador to Haiti, served as an adviser to the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq in 2003.

“In order to better deliver on the governance and economic side, the United States is further decentralizing and diversifying our civilian presence,” Miss Rice said at the Senate hearing. “We need to get civilians out of our embassy, out of the Green Zone, into the field across Iraq.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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