WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refused yesterday to rule out military action against Syria and Iran -- two countries she accused of supporting the insurgency in Iraq.
Rice, speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that President Bush would not need to ask Congress for authorization to use military force against Iraq's neighbors.
''I don't want to try and circumscribe presidential war powers," Rice said in response to a question on whether the administration would have to return to Congress to seek authorization to use military force outside Iraq's borders. ''I think you'll understand fully that the president retains those powers in the war on terrorism and in the war in Iraq."
Rice, in her three hours of testimony, painted an upbeat picture of political progress in Iraq. But she also described the war as part of a long-term struggle that might last more than a decade. The war on terrorism, she said, would be won only after change spreads across the entire Middle East.
''Syria and indeed Iran must decide whether they wish to side with the cause of war or with the cause of peace," Rice told senators.
Rice described a two-pronged strategy against Syria: First, military action in towns along the Syrian border with Iraq to flush out insurgents; second, stepped-up diplomatic efforts in Europe and the Arab world to isolate the Syrian government.
Rice appeared to show more flexibility toward Iran, however; this could open the door to the possibility that the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, could initiate direct discussions with his Iranian counterparts, as he has done with Afghanistan.
Inside Iraq, Rice said, the administration would begin to use joint military and aid missions known as ''Provincial Reconstruction Teams." These have been used in Afghanistan to create goodwill, development, and a more friendly image for the US military.
But she declined to provide even an approximate time frame for withdrawing US forces from Iraq, saying only that it would be after the insurgency no longer poses a threat to the government.
When Senator Paul S. Sarbanes, Democrat of Maryland, asked if Rice thinks the same number of US soldiers will be in Iraq 10 years from now, Rice said: ''Senator, I don't know how to speculate about what will happen 10 years from now, but I do believe that we are moving on a course in which Iraqi security forces are rather rapidly able to take care of their own security concerns."
Rice faced tough questions from both Democrats and Republicans.
''Under the Iraq War Resolution, we restricted any military action to Iraq," Senator Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Rhode Island Republican, reminded Rice.
''So would you agree that if anything were to occur on Syrian or Iranian soil," Chafee said, ''you would have to return to Congress to get that authorization?"
Rice replied that the president did not need new authorization.
Democrats said that the administration had originally used weapons of mass destruction as a rationale for war, not a perceived need to transform the Middle East. They also noted that the administration had said initially that the war would take little time and few resources.
Rice asked for patience and resolve. ''A political solution was not going to be born overnight in Iraq," she said.
''That's not what you told America and that's not what you told this committee," Senator John F. Kerryshot back.
Some senators suggested that the indefinite US military presence in Iraq was actually fueling the insurgency, not thwarting it.
Rice said the Iraqi government wanted US troops to stay, and had set up a committee to study a US withdrawal based on conditions. ''You do not want American forces to leave and then find out that Iraqi forces are incapable of holding their own territory," Rice said.
In her testimony, Rice said that the only real solution in the war against terror is the transformation of the Middle East into a region of stable democracies.
Rice used ''malignant" or ''malignancy" four times to describe the region.
''The Middle East was a malignant place that produced an ideology of extremism so great that people flew airplanes into our buildings one fine September morning," Rice said.
She said: ''American children and grandchildren, they're not going to live in fear of this extremist ideology which has its roots in this very malignant water."
Her comments drew fire. James Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute, called them ''insulting . . . they will contribute to a deeper bitterness."