US' Rice won't discuss Maliki corruption probe

WASHINGTON, Oct 25 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice vowed on Thursday to examine corruption allegations against Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, but refused to discuss publicly what she said could be rumor.

In an edgy three-hour hearing led by one of Congress' most tenacious interrogators, Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California, Rice said her office would look into allegations against Maliki as well as "hundreds of reports of corruption" among Iraqi officials.

A former Iraqi judge told Waxman's committee earlier this month that Maliki had shielded top Iraqi officials, including one of the prime minister's own relatives, from investigation.

"I am not personally following every allegation of corruption in Iraq, but I am certain that we are tracking these allegations of corruption because no one is more concerned about allegations of corruption in Iraq, no one is more concerned about what is, in fact, a pervasive problem of corruption than we are," Rice told the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"But to assault the prime minister of Iraq or anyone else in Iraq with here-to-date unsubstantiated allegations or lack of corroboration, in a setting that would simply fuel those allegations, I think, would be deeply damaging," she said.

"And frankly, I think it would be wrong," Rice said.

Waxman is one of the President George W. Bush's strongest critics. He has led probes into the State Department over the Iraq corruption issue, the conduct of private security contractors in Iraq and the construction of a massive new U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

At Waxman's urging, the entire House voted last week to rebuke the State Department for withholding information from the public on corruption among Iraqi officials.

Rice was enduring a second day of congressional grilling, following a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday at which an anti-war protester waved blood-colored hands in her face.

There were more policemen than protesters in the hearing room on Thursday and no disruptions from anti-war demonstrators.

But the atmosphere was tense as Rice repeatedly refused to discuss allegations against Maliki, despite questioning from Waxman. She did repeat an earlier offer to provide information in a session closed to the public.

"We investigate every allegation of this kind," Rice told Waxman.

"When will your investigation be complete?" he demanded.

Rice replied that she was overseeing a large organization and there were many documents to examine.

"Well, this is a big deal. This is the prime minister of the country," Waxman declared.

"I agree with you it's a big deal," Rice retorted. "Precisely because it's not a minor allegation, I think it is worth giving the time to it to fully investigate it before discussing it."

Later, Waxman told Rice he was concerned about Iraqi corruption because "Americans are there fighting to keep Prime Minister Maliki in office."

"We're not fighting to keep Prime Minister Maliki in office," Rice shot back. "We are fighting to help the Iraqis to develop a democratic government that can provide for its people."

A few Republicans on the panel apologized to Rice for the "prosecutorial" nature of the hearing and praised her composure. She was "hectored but not harried," said Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah.