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Rice Defends Actions on Iraq Corruption


U.S. lawmakers have sharply questioned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about allegations that the State Department withheld information of corruption in Iraq, and steps by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to deal with it. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

The appearance by Secretary of State Rice came after months of refusing to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee because of disagreements with the panel chairman, Democrat Henry Waxman.

Waxman and other Democrats assert the Bush administration tried to block congressional investigations by retroactively classifying a U.S. Embassy-Baghdad draft report critical of Iraqi anti-corruption measures, withholding other documents, and avoiding public testimony.

The State Department said the corruption-related information sought by the committee involves sensitive diplomatic as well as legal issues with the government of Prime Minister Maliki.

Secretary Rice repeated an acknowledgment that pervasive corruption exists in Iraq, but continued a policy of declining comment on specific allegations.

In this exchange, she was pressed by Waxman on what she knows about allegations that Prime Minister Maliki obstructed an investigation into corruption by his cousin, the former Iraqi transportation minister:

WAXMAN: "Do you know whether this is true, did Prime Minister Maliki intervene to obstruct a corruption investigation of his cousin the transportation minister?"

RICE: "Ah, Mr. Chairman, let me say that some of the questions that you are asking may indeed get into areas in which there are concerns about the exposure of sources."

WAXMAN: "I don't want you to expose any sources, I am just asking you whether you are aware that PM Maliki intervened to obstruct a corruption investigation of his cousin the transportation minister?"

RICE: "Ah, let me say that everything that has been brought to the attention of either various boards in Iraq or to our people is being investigated."

While not personally following every investigation, Rice said that "no one is more concerned about allegations and the problem of corruption."

Pressed further on the allegations that the Iraqi leader issued an order attempting to block high officials from prosecution for corruption, Rice said the United States opposes any step that would shield investigation or prosecution.

"It would not be the intention of the United States of America that any official in Iraq, including the prime minister, the president, or members of the Council of Representatives would be immune from investigation for corruption," she said.

Congressman Tom Davis was among Republicans asserting that public statements Waxman and other Democrats want to extract from the administration on corruption could harm the effort in Iraq.

"Unable to reverse [the] course [of President Bush's Iraq policy], the Democratic strategy seems to be to drill enough small holes in the bottom of the boat to sink the entire Iraqi enterprise while still claiming undying support for the crew about to drown," he said. "As that strategy unfolds, we should not underestimate the corrosive impact on our diplomatic standing and the morale of those pursuing U.S. goals in Iraq when we gratuitously flog these problems publicly without constructive solutions."

Lawmakers also pressed Rice on other issues, including problems with the construction of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, and measures endorsed by the secretary to exert more control over private contractors.

She agreed that past oversight was inadequate, although rejecting a description that contractors were reckless, and said an order issued by the former Coalition Provisional Authority making contractors immune from Iraqi law should be reviewed:

"It will be very helpful to have a law [approved by the Iraqi government] that closes this particular lacuna [gap]," she said. "But the people in the field have been dealing with the most difficult circumstances in which they are trying to protect our diplomats, and that they have done."

Iraq's parliament is due to consider a law that would place private security companies under the Iraqi interior ministry and hold contractors accountable for actions.

The move came in the wake of a September incident in which contractors working for the Blackwater company are alleged to have killed at least 11 Iraqi civilians while escorting a U.S. diplomatic convoy.

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