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Rice Takes Reins at State Dept.

Condoleezza Rice (search) took over Thursday as America's 66th secretary of state and told her employees that the State Department's top priority will be carrying out President Bush's "bold" foreign policy agenda.

"We've got a lot of challenges ahead of us. This is really a remarkable time in our country's history," Rice told State Department (search) officials and workers after arriving at the agency.

"The president has set forth a really bold agenda for American foreign policy and the State Department has got to be in the lead in this period in which diplomacy will be so important in solidifying the gains made in the last few years and pressing forward toward a freer and more prosperous world."

Earlier, Rice received a warm State Department welcome as employees clapped and cheered as she climbed the stairs to take the microphone.

"Well this is a little different welcome than the first time I came to work at the State Department," she said, recalling how she served as an intern there in 1977 at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (search). "Now there's a lesson in that — be good to your interns," she added.

Rice said her agency's top priority will be carrying out the president's call to have America "stand for freedom and liberty."

"That's our charge, that's our calling," she said and then started her first day on the job with telephone calls to various foreign ministers and a planned White House meeting on Iraq.

She said her "door will be open" and that she will be open to ideas on how to further that agenda on a day-to-day basis. She also voiced her hope to further diversify the department's workforce.

"It's an extremely important lesson in a world where difference is still a license to kill," she said.

Rice closed out her welcoming remarks by saying: "Thank you and if you excuse me, I think I'll go try to find my office now."

From Feb. 3-10, Rice will visit eight European countries, Israel and the West Bank. The countries are: United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, Turkey, Israel, Italy, France, Belgium and Luxembourg.

On Thursday, Rice spent time getting to know the people who work in the secretary's office support staff, department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters, and she began making phone calls to foreign leaders. As of 3 p.m. EST, Boucher said, Rice had so far called the foreign ministers of Italy and Russia, as well as Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. Later Thursday afternoon, Rice will also meet with the East Asian bureau and other departmetns working on tsunami relief.

Her arrival at the State Department was orchestrated for an enthusiastic welcome by employees in the same mezzanine where Colin Powell bid farewell last week. Rice was sworn in Wednesday night as the nation's 66th secretary of state by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card in his West Wing office. Her designated replacement as national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, held the Bible.

Bush planned to attend a ceremonial swearing-in Friday at the State Department, with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg administering the oath.

At the very top of a touch list of items Rice will have to tackle is a grinding war in Iraq that has taken the lives of more than 1,400 U.S. troops.

During Senate confirmation hearings last week in which she was peppered with 390 oral and written questions, Rice was strongly challenged on Iraq and the war. She gave no indication that she would recommend any change in U.S. strategy designed to overcome insurgents and steer Iraq toward democracy.

However, she did acknowledge problems, citing desertions and poor leadership among the Iraqi security forces that are supposed to take charge of pacifying the country.

Rice did not hint at changes in diplomatic efforts to stop nuclear weapons development in Iran and North Korea.

However, on the Middle East, she seized on the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian leader as the kind of opening that would impel her to take on an active and personal role in trying to promote negotiations with Israel.

"Condoleezza Rice is coming in at one of the most dramatic moments in American history," former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told FOX News soon after Rice entered the State Department. "There are enormous challenges all over the world."

Rice, a one-time Stanford academic and analyst of the now-defunct Soviet Union, is the first black woman to hold the job of secretary of state. The first woman was Madeleine Albright; Powell was the first black man.

Rice is about a week behind schedule, delayed by critical Democratic senators who delayed confirmation. The Senate voted 85-13 to confirm her Wednesday. In history, only Henry Clay, who was confirmed as secretary of state in 1825 by a vote of 27-14, drew more opposition. Henry Kissinger was approved 78-7, Dean Acheson 83-6 and Alexander Haig 93-6.

Twelve Democrats and one independent, Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, opposed Rice's confirmation. Several other Democrats criticized U.S. policy and Rice's role in helping to shape it as President Bush's assistant for national security.

Led by Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, Democrats blistered Rice at Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings last week and during Senate debate Tuesday and Wednesday, saying she misled the American public on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's weapons and kept changing the rationale for war.

Republicans, solid in supporting Rice, alleged the Democrats had crossed the line into partisan politics and had broken with a tradition of support for presidents in wartime.

The Democrats said mistakes had led to mounting American casualties. As the debate drew to a close, word came from Iraq of the crash of a U.S. military transport helicopter in bad weather, killing 31 servicemembers in the single worst U.S. loss since the beginning of the war.

Still, led by Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., Democrats decided Bush has the prerogative to select his Cabinet.

Separately:

— Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced Alberto Gonzales' attorney general nomination on a partyline, 10-8 vote, sending it to the full Senate where Republicans were expected to use their 55-44 advantage to confirm him there next week at the earliest.

— Jim Nicholson and Michael Leavitt won confirmation as the new secretaries of veterans affairs and health and human services, respectively, as Bush's second-term Cabinet fills out.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.