Democrat attacks Rice over claims of 'mushroom cloud'

Condoleezza Rice, a leading cheerleader of the war in Iraq and President George Bush's nominee for Secretary of State, was yesterday accused of misleading the American people over the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Condoleezza Rice, a leading cheerleader of the war in Iraq and President George Bush's nominee for Secretary of State, was yesterday accused of misleading the American people over the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as part of her confirmation process, Ms Rice was accused of contradicting comments made by both herself and the President about Saddam's nuclear capabilities. Her contradictions, it was said, constituted a "very troubling" pattern.

Ms Rice's chief tormenter was the California senator Barbara Boxer, who said: "I don't want the families of those 1,366 [US soldiers killed in Iraq] to believe for a minute that their lives were given in vain, but I will not shrink from questioning a war that was not built on truth," she said.

Ms Boxer accused Ms Rice, currently Mr Bush's National Security Adviser, of altering what she said about Saddam's nuclear capabilities. Before the war, said Ms Boxer, Ms Rice had raised the spectre of a "mushroom cloud" if Saddam was not ousted. After the war, when it became clear that Saddam possessed no such weapons, Ms Rice claimed she had never raised such threats.

"You sent them in there because of weapons of mass destruction. Later the mission changed when there were none. Let's not rewrite history."

Ms Rice, clearly unsettled, replied: "I'm more than aware of the stakes we face in Iraq and I was more than aware of the stakes we faced in going to war with Iraq." She added: "We can have this discussion in any way that you would like, but I really hope that you will refrain from impugning my integrity. I really hope that you will not imply that I take the truth lightly."

It is all but certain that Ms Rice will be confirmed as the successor to Colin Powell as the world's most powerful diplomat. Yesterday she said she would work with countries to improve the situation in Iraq and mend fences with nations whose relationship with the US became frayed as a result of Mr Bush's decision to go to war.

"The world is coming together behind the idea that we have to succeed in Iraq," she claimed. But when she said, "The time for diplomacy is now", the committee's senior Democrat, Senator Joe Biden, retorted: "The time for diplomacy is long overdue."

Ms Rice said the US exit strategy from Iraq would depend on that country's security situation. The defeated Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry, claimed the US did not have enough troops to ensure security. Ms Rice, 50, who will become only the second woman Secretary of State, said spreading democracy in the Middle East remained a priority for Mr Bush, and that the Palestinian election earlier this month offered "a moment of opportunity".

She also attacked the elected leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. "We are very concerned about a democratically elected leader who governs in an illiberal way," said Ms Rice.

The US provided tens of thousands of dollars to groups involved in the 2002 attempt to oustMr Chavez, and to political parties that organised last year's attempted recall of him.

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