Robert Gates defends Bush's decision to send thousands of US soldiers to Iraq

Being a newcomer has its benefits.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in charge of the Pentagon for a mere three weeks, got off easy Thursday when he went before the House Armed Services Committee to defend U.S. President George W. Bush's decision to send thousands more U.S. troops to Iraq.

Lawmakers congratulated the former university president for coming out of retirement to take the assignment. One said the committee was blessed to have him appear.

There were few such niceties across the Capitol, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - a familiar face on the administration's Iraq policy - was on a similar mission before a largely skeptical Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Five presidential hopefuls on the panel, as well as other up-and-comers in the new Democratic majority, made sure they were heard. And those voices - including Republican ones - were full of frustration and mistrust about Bush's handling of the war.

Gates was returning to Congress on Friday to testify before the same Senate panel.

His predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, had an air that was at times obstinate and dismissive when he faced congressional critics. "That's just not correct," he told one senator last May, before admonishing: "You're not listening carefully."

Gates displayed none of that prickliness Thursday. He showed deference to the 61-member House committee, complimenting the panel for being a "steadfast friend and ally of our men and women in uniform and a source of support in meeting our nation's defense needs."

Gates spoke in even, measured tones, even when repeatedly pressed on what the consequences would be for Iraqis if they fail to follow through on Bush's plan.

"We are blessed to have you, Mr. Secretary," Representative Ike Skelton, the committee chairman, said at the beginning. "And thank you for making this your very first hearing in the Congress of the United States."

Several others congratulated Gates on his new position.

Some of the toughest comments were directed at Peter Pace, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, who shared the witness table with Gates.

"This is the craziest, dumbest plan I've ever seen or heard of in my life," Representative Neil Abercrombie told Pace.

But the gloves came off for Rice.

Senator Barbara Boxer noted Rice has no children to lose overseas. "Who pays the price?" she repeatedly demanded. "You're not going to pay a particular price," she told Rice, because the secretary has no "immediate family" at risk.

Rice is notably unflappable. Her face was tight, her voice even. She did not give much away or lose her temper.

She might find her trip to the volatile Middle East starting Friday a vacation compared with her time before the committee.

A "fool's paradise," was how Senator Chris Dodd, who hours earlier had announced his Democratic presidential candidacy, described Iraq policy.

"A tragic mistake," in the words of Senator Joe Biden, the committee chairman and a White House hopeful.

And this, from a Republican with presidential ambitions: "The most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam," Senator Chuck Hagel said of Bush's speech Wednesday night announcing the troop increase, the AP said.

Hagel has opposed the Bush policy for some time. But Senator Bill Nelson has supported it. No more.

"I have not been told the truth," Nelson said. "I have not been told the truth over and over again."

Two more presidential aspirants - Democratic Senators John Kerry and Barack Obama - weighed in.

Boxer made it personal.

"I'm not going to pay a personal price," she said. "My kids are too old and my grandchild is too young. You're not going to pay a particular price, as I understand it, with an immediate family."

Rice said evenly that she understands the sacrifice of service members and their families.

"I visit them. I know what they're going through. I talk to their families. I see it. I could never and I can never do anything to replace any of those lost men and women in uniform, or the diplomats, some of whom. ..."

Boxer cut her off.

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