WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice gave no ground in Senate confirmation questioning yesterday, insisting the United States was fully prepared for the Iraq war and its aftermath and refusing to give a timetable for U.S. troops to come home.

An American exit strategy depends on Iraq’s ability to defend itself against terrorists after this month’s elections, she said.

Rice seemed headed for easy confirmation by the Senate as President Bush’s choice to be the country’s top diplomat. She did have a tense exchange with Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.) — Rice repeatedly asked the senator not to question her truthfulness — but former presidential nominee John Kerry (D-Mass.) was the only member of the Foreign Relations Committee who told her she might not win his vote.

“This was never going to be easy,” Rice said of the war and its aftermath during a confirmation hearing in which she painted an optimistic picture of the future in Iraq — and for resolution of the long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as well.

“It was always going to have ups and downs. I’m sure that we have made many decisions, some of which were good, some of which might not have been good,” but the ouster of Saddam Hussein was worth the price, Rice said. “I think we made the right decision to overthrow him.”

Rice said the administration’s actions after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks — including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq —were “difficult and necessary and right.”

Asked whether, with hindsight, the United States should have committed more troops to Iraq, Rice said that despite “some unforeseen circumstances” she was satisfied with the numbers.

As for U.S. troops leaving, she said in response to forceful questioning from Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, “Our role is directly proportional … to how capable the Iraqis are.”

“I am really reluctant to try to put a timetable on that, because I think the goal is to get the mission accomplished and that means that the Iraqis have to be capable of some things before we lessen our own responsibility,” she said.She pledged to work to improve ties with some allies frayed by U.S. policy. A committee vote is expected today, and the full Senate could act later in the week.

If confirmed Rice, 50, would be the first black woman to lead the State Department. She would replace the popular Colin Powell as America’s most visible face abroad.

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