Rice faces 2½-hour questioning by terrorism commission

Condeleezza Rice will be subjected to the longest public grilling yet of any important witness when she gives her crucial testimony to the 11 September commission this week, according to the panel's chairman, Thomas Kean.

Mr Kean said yesterday that President George Bush's National Security Adviser was scheduled to give evidence for two and a half hours on Thursday -- longer even than the appearance last month of Richard Clarke, the former White House counter-terrorism chief who has charged that the Bush administration, fixated on Iraq, neglected the threat posed by al-Qa'ida before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"We want to know about her work in the transition. We want to know about what happened and what the differences were between the Bush policies and the policies of the Clinton administration," Mr Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, told NBC's Meet The Press.

He said the commission was scrutinising the testimony of other witnesses who had suggested the attacks might have been prevented had available evidence been acted upon. These include Sibel Edmonds, the former FBI translator who told The Independent she had provided the panel with information proving senior officials knew months before 11 September, 2001 of al-Qa'ida's plans to attack the US with aircraft.

Nonetheless, the White House and Mr Bush's campaign strategists hope the appearance of Ms Rice will refute Mr Clarke's most damaging allegations, and restore the President's image as a relentless foe of terror.

Mr Bush - and his closest ally Tony Blair - have been hit by new claims suggesting that an invasion of Iraq was effectively decided within days of the 11 Septemberstrikes against New York and Washington.

In an interview in the May issue of Vanity Fair magazine, Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British Ambassador to Washington, says the President first asked the Prime Minister to support the removal of Saddam Hussein from power at a White House dinner nine days after the attacks. Mr Meyer adds that Mr Blair "said nothing to demur" when faced with the likelihood of a new war, after Afghanistan had been dealt with.

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