US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice fought off an inquisition by lawmakers Thursday over claims that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was shielding top ministers from corruption probes.

Democratic lawmaker Henry Waxman, who has demanded answers from Rice on various aspects of the US operation in Iraq for months, got his chance at a hearing of a key House of Representatives committee.

He raised claims that Maliki had issued a decree requiring his approval before any minister or official in the presidential office was brought before a court on corruption charges.

Rice refused to respond directly but said US officials took all allegations of corruption in Iraq seriously and pledged to review the case.

“To assault the prime minister in Iraq, with to date heretofore unsubstantiated allegations or uncorroborated allegations in a setting that would simply fuel those allegations … would be deeply wrong,” Rice said.

“Not only is it potentially damaging to relationships that we are very dependent on … it is wrong.”

Rice argued that publicly talking about specific corruption cases risked exposing intelligence sources in Iraq, but said any official or document was available to the committee in closed session.

Democrats say such discussions must be in public, including documents which could damage the administration’s claims of success in Iraq.

The hearing represented the latest sharp confrontation between Congress and the Bush administration, three days after the White House asked lawmakers for another 196 billion dollars in funding for the Iraq and Afghan wars.

On Wednesday, anger mounted after the Congressional Budget Office said the cost of the “war on terror” could hit 2.4 trillion dollars by 2017.

As tempers flared in the hearing of the House Oversight and Government reform committee, Waxman confronted Rice with a document purportedly from the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office signed by its manager, Tariq Najim Abdullah.

The order said no official from the presidential office, council of ministers or current or previous ministers should be sent to court with Maliki’s express approval.

The document, dated 04/01/2007, was handed to the committee Judge Radhi Hamza al-Radhi, former head of the Iraqi Commission on Public Integrity who has fled to the United States.

“Is the prime minister one of the people that cares about fighting corruption in Iraq?” Waxman asked.

Rice replied that the United States did not accept “any policy that would make immune from investigation or prosecution any member of the Iraqi government, no matter how high.”

“If there is corruption, the United States wants to root it out.”

Earlier this month, the Iraqi government said it would take legal action against the judge, accusing him of smuggling official documents and defaming the prime minister.

Radhi and a group of colleagues headed to Washington in August to undergo training with the US Justice Department.

Maliki at the time accused him of fleeing the country to avoid being tried on graft charges and replaced him as head of the Commission.

Radhi denies the graft allegations and told Waxman’s committee earlier this month corruption was affecting virtually every government ministry and that some of the most powerful officials in Iraq are implicated.

As tensions rose in the hearing, Democrats lined up to hammer the Bush administration on Iraq, and Republicans attempted to defend Rice, and argue that the current US troop “surge strategy” had improved security there.

“May I have an opportunity though to finish my answers?” Rice asked Waxman at one stage, while Republican member Dan Burton felt obliged to apologize for the harsh questioning of Democrats on the committee.

“You are not being prosecuted, and we are not prosecutors,” Burton said.

But Democratic member Stephen Lynch warned Rice “our kids are on the ground now in that country fighting and dying. We can’t wait a moment longer before we talk about this.”

Waxman earlier warned Rice’s personal reputation was on the line, as she faced questions about her department’s oversight of the Blackwater private security firm, accused of killing as many as 17 Iraqi civilians on September 16.

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