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Amid Criticism of US Policy in Iraq Rice Outlines Benchmarks for Success

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the Bush administration has a strategy to assure victory in Iraq - but is refusing to say when U.S. troops can begin to be brought home. Ms. Rice testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, in a hearing marked by some pointed criticism of U.S. policy in Iraq.

The hearing began with some Senators pressing Secretary Rice to outline concrete benchmarks for success in Iraq. It took place just a few days after Saturday's constitutional referendum in Iraq, in which Iraqis turned out in large numbers to vote for or against a draft constitution. The constitution will pave the way for the election of a permanent government in December.

In her testimony, Ms. Rice pointed to Saturday's vote and other recent developments as signs of progress.

"I think the Iraqis are demonstrating that they do want a modern and unified and democratic Iraq, that's why they went out 8.5 million strong in January despite the threats, and almost a million more this past referendum, despite the threats," she said. "But for the most part, they've been moving on a political schedule that has been very ambitious to get from the transfer of sovereignty, to interim elections, to a constitution, to a constitutional referendum and now to a elections in December. I think they've done remarkably, and they have demonstrated to us this is what they want to do."

But some Senators pressed Ms. Rice to offer more concrete evidence of success, and to indicate when U.S. troops can begin to be drawn down.

Democratic Senator Joseph Biden says the American people want results.

"We're not setting timetables, we're not saying cut and run, we're saying: give us a plan," he said. "Stay the course is clearly something the American people will not follow. Will not follow."

Recent public opinion polls show a majority of Americans question the U.S. role in Iraq, and many want the Bush administration to begin pulling troops out of the country.

In her testimony, Ms. Rice ruled out giving any timetables for military withdrawals - saying coalition troops are needed to help Iraqi security forces combat the insurgency. In an exchange with Senator Biden, she said Iraqi forces increasingly are taking on this role.

"I think that the thing we are focusing on is: are they making progress in the strategy of being able to really hold the territory that they've cleared, are they making progress in being able to take over whole segments of the country as they have in the south in Najaf? They are taking over responsibility now for some of the toughest places, those are good benchmarks,” she said.

Responding to Secretary Rice's comments, Senator Biden replied: “Thank you, Madame Secretary, I think you need to think bigger and bolder, or you're going to lose the folks."

As part of Washington's strategy, Ms. Rice also told the committee the United States will follow a model that was successful in Afghanistan. She said starting next month joint civil-military groups - Provincial Reconstruction Teams - will work alongside Iraqis as they train police and help local governments establish essential services. Wednesday's session was the 30th full Committee hearing on Iraq since January 2003.