Republicans criticize Rice over Iraq, Iran, Hamas

Republican senators criticized the Bush administration Wednesday over its policies in Iraq, Iran and the Palestinian territories, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's first testimony to Congress in months exposed her to a tough grilling from some members of her own party.

"I don't see, Madame Secretary, how things are getting better. I think things are getting worse. I think they're getting worse in Iraq. I think they're getting worse in Iran," Sen. Chuck Hagel told Rice as she appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Typically soft-spoken, Chafee tersely questioned whether the United States could have prevented Hamas from coming to power. "Opportunities missed," Chafee lamented after rattling off a list. "Now we have a very, very disastrous situation of a terrorist organization winning elections."

Rice said she agrees it's a difficult moment for the peace process, but responded: "I don't think the United States of America is responsible for the election of Hamas. No, I don't."

"If Hamas will take the signals being given it by the international community as to what it will take to govern, it could, in fact, be a more positive development," Rice added.

Though the moderate Chafee and Hagel, a frequent Republican maverick and potential presidential candidate in 2008, are less conservative than many of their Republican colleagues, their criticism underscored a widespread frustration in Congress with the difficult problems the United States is facing across the Middle East.

Rice tried to take the offensive by announcing an administration request for $75 million (Ђ63 million) this year to build democracy in Iran, saying the U.S. must support Iranians who are seeking freedoms under what she called a radical regime.

The U.S. and its European allies are confronting Iran over its nuclear program. But Tehran has remained defiant and said this week that it is resuming small-scale uranium enrichment, which many countries fear could be an early step toward production of fuel for a nuclear bomb.

"They have now crossed a point where they are in open defiance of the international community," Rice said.

She declined to detail what punishment the United States is pursuing, although she did acknowledge that the United States has analyzed the impact of oil sanctions on Iran as part of a broad review of all available tools and has a "menu of options" available.

"You will see us trying to walk a fine line in actions we take," Rice said.

The money Rice wants for Iran, to be included in an emergency 2006 budget request the White House is expected to send to Congress as early as this week, would be used for radio and satellite television broadcasting and for programs to help Iranians study abroad.

"The United States wishes to reach out to the Iranian people and support their desire to realize their own freedom and to secure their own democratic and human rights. The Iranian people should know that the United States fully supports their aspirations for a freer, better future," Rice said, reports AP.

O.Ch.