WASHINGTON — For months, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice fended off demands from Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that she testify about a growing list of State Department problems in Iraq.
Rice finally made her appearance Thursday, and faced aggressive questioning about corruption in the Iraqi government, rogue behavior by security guards for private contractor Blackwater USA, and construction defects at the new $600-million U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
"We need to know whether the mistakes of the State Department have jeopardized any chance for political success in Iraq," Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) said in his opening remarks.
Rice, an academic by training and a diplomat by profession, sparred for three hours with Waxman and committee Democrats. Republicans charged that Democrats, without the votes in Congress to end the war outright, were trying to halt it by exposing a series of problems in Iraq.
"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," said ranking member Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.).
Whatever their intent, Democrats were unabashed in their criticism.
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) accused the administration of sugarcoating the situation in Iraq and ignoring rampant government corruption.
"Any person with half a brain would understand that the situation is not good or else you'd want to talk about it," Yarmuth said.
"Since I'm certain we all have a brain, let me say it this way," Rice shot back. "There is a very bad problem of corruption in Iraq. It is a problem in ministries, it is the problem in government, it is a problem with officials."
Rice imposed new restrictions and regulations on private security contractors this week and accepted the resignation of her diplomatic security chief a day before the hearing. She shed little new light on the international controversy about Blackwater, the contractor accused by the Iraqis of acting improperly in a Sept. 16 shooting that left 17 Iraqis dead and in the Christmas Eve 2006 shooting death of an Iraqi guard who was protecting a vice president of Iraq.
Referring to the Christmas Eve shooting, Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D-N.H.) accused the State Department of "incompetence in management or purposeful lack of attention."
Rice agreed that past management of the contractors had been "inadequate."
"In this war zone, I don't think that people have been either reckless nor have they been trying somehow to shield people in this circumstance," she said.
Waxman retorted that incident did not involve a war zone. "The man got drunk, shot an innocent Iraqi, not during the war but in the Green Zone on Christmas Eve. And he can't even be prosecuted, because there's no law in effect."
Rice, explaining for the first time why no one had been prosecuted in connection with the incident, replied that U.S. laws apply but that there may be insufficient evidence.
"The Justice Department is looking to see whether he can be prosecuted because of the evidence," Rice said. "It is not the absence of law in that case, it's a question of evidence."
Referring to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) cited a report showing defects throughout the building. Rice said the problems were discovered by the State Department's own inspectors and were being addressed.
Davis called the changes "punch-list items that need to be completed on the contractor's tab."
During a hearing bristling with partisan snipes between Democrats and Republicans, the overall state of affairs in Iraq was never far from the surface. Pressed by committee members to acknowledge any regrets, Rice said that the war in Iraq had been difficult and expensive.
"Yes, frankly, it has been harder than I thought it would be," she said.
But she defended administration policy and praised patriotic Iraqis who had risked their lives.
"I cannot by any means make up for the terrible sacrifice," she said. "But I can say that I think nothing of value is ever won without sacrifice. And yes, I do believe that it's been worth it."