WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday brushed aside suggestions that the United States wants an indefinite troop presence and permanent military bases in Iraq.
"The presence in Iraq is for a very clear purpose, and that's to enable Iraqis to be able to govern themselves and to create security forces that can help them do that," Rice told the House Appropriations Committee's foreign operations panel.
"I don't think that anybody believes that we really want to be there longer than we have to," the chief U.S. diplomat added.
However, Rice did not say when all U.S. forces would return home and did not directly answer Rep. Steven Rothman, D-N.J., when he asked, "Will the bases be permanent or not?"
"I would think that people would tell you, we're not seeking permanent bases really pretty much anywhere in the world these days. We are, in fact, in the process of removing base structure from a lot of places," Rice replied.
"I can't foresee the future of whether or not there will be some need for American forces for some period of time," she added. "But I can tell you that our discussions with the Iraqis are about getting them capable to defend, not just against their internal insurgency and internal enemies, but also to be able to be a responsible and defensible state within the region."
Earlier Tuesday, President Bush urged Iraq to move quickly to form a unity government, calling on elected leaders "to stand up and do their job." He said the formation of a new government would give Iraqis confidence in their future.
Bush's statement, during a brief question-and-answer session with reporters at the White House, came on the heels of a similar admonition by Rice during a visit to Iraq. She had spoken of a "sense of drift" nearly four months after Iraqis held parliamentary elections.
Bush said insurgents were using violence to prevent democracy from taking hold. "One way to help bring confidence to the Iraqi people that those few will not be able to determine the future of that country is for there to be unity government that steps up and says, 'I'm willing to lead."'
On Captiol Hill, Rice testified before the House panel just hours after returning to the United States from a weeklong trip to Europe that included a surprise detour to Iraq. She and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw met with nearly all of Iraq's squabbling factions for two days of diplomatic talks.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers increasingly are questioning just how long U.S. troops will remain in Iraq, especially given what appear to be construction projects at military bases in Iraq and polls indicating that Iraqis believe the United States plans to keep permanent bases in their country.
Iraq's interim prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, has said he opposes permanent foreign bases. American public opinion is against them as well.
Last month, Bush said that American forces will remain in Iraq for years and it will be up to a future president to decide when to bring them all home.
Appearing before the House subcommittee, Rice defended U.S. efforts to rebuild Iraq's essential services, such as electricity, even though progress has been hampered by security problems. She said the United States has made important investments in rebuilding the structures to provide such services.
"We believe that they will pay off," she said.
However, Rice acknowledged problems with security as well as "some corruption problems in some of the ministries." She said the United States is urging Iraqi officials to correct the issues so that reconstruction can proceed unhampered.
— Defended the United States' efforts to help Afghanistan eradicate poppy crops and the Bush administration's public plan to invest $75 million in U.S. democracy programs aimed at strengthening ties with the Iranian people.
"On this one I don't think speaking softly about the democracy problem in Iran is really the appropriate course. I think we do have to be very public about it," Rice said.
— Said it would be helpful for the African Union to "put its full weight" behind putting together a U.N. peacekeeping force in the war-ravaged Darfur region.
"There are sometimes mixed signals from the African Union about how they view this. There are sometimes mixed signals out of the Arab League about how they view this," Rice said.