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Bush's "unsticker' has job that's as sticky as it gets

She is said to be President Bush's "weather vane," and, if so, Condoleezza Rice is being buffeted these days by ever-shifting winds from the Middle East. Not to mention the internal squalls over postwar Iraq that keep blowing through Washington.

Bush's top foreign policy adviser is now heading a new organization whose name _ the Iraq Stabilization Group _ attests to the continued violence in Iraq.

The president calls Rice the "unsticker," saying she helps "unstick" problems in Iraq that get caught up in the gears of government.

Her critics say Rice leaves too many problems unresolved and needs to exert a heavier hand to bridge the moderate State Department and the more conservative Pentagon.

In reported instances, Rice has refrained from taking issues to the president, leaving them to fester, and backed down when he has expressed a strong reaction against discussing them.

A determined woman, steeped in academia, Rice is hardly a pushover.

Her briefcase overflows with many tasks: keeping Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell from butting heads; orchestrating a get-tough U.S. policy against North Korea and its nuclear ambitions; shepherding work on the Middle East peace process; helping the president address the nuclear weapons threat in Iran.

The White House dismisses allegations that the Iraq Stabilization Group, folded into the National Security Council, amounts to Rice grabbing power from Rumsfeld and the Pentagon, the agency officially in charge of rebuilding Iraq.

"I want to be very clear: I'm the national security adviser," Rice says. "What I do is coordinate policy. I don't operate. I don't implement. I coordinate policy. It is the secretary of defense who will continue to run the postwar reconstruction, as he has done and as he has done well."

For Ivo Daalder, who served in President Clinton's National Security Council, there is no question the new group pulls more power into the White House.

"As far as I've been able to tell, there hasn't been the kind of coordinated leadership by the NSC on this issue at least since January when Rumsfeld was given control of the whole planning and execution of the postwar period," Daalder said.

"Rumsfeld has ridden roughshod over the NSC process at large, and he's been getting away with it. I have no idea whether she (Rice) is going to crack the whip or not. She hasn't up to this point."

The Associated Press reports that White House officials say the idea that Rumsfeld rules is false and that the infamous infighting with Powell is overstated.

James Phillips, Middle East expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says Bush likes to hear differing policy options so he purposefully has not muted debate between those Cabinet members.

Now, the president is stressing teamwork in finding peace in Iraq, and has given the leadership role to Rice, Phillips said.

"I think we're coming up to hard decisions on Iraq that are going to have to be made at the White House, anyway, like how to gradually pull out U.S. troops without undermining the evolving government and how to reduce American losses while continuing the hunt for weapons and remnants of Saddam's regime and al-Qaida," Phillips said.

Phillips argues that Rice should not be criticized for delaying decisions when maybe it is best to wait for more information.

"Bush is very decisive," he said. "I'd be nervous if she were bringing issues up to him prematurely."

Cast as a rising star when she began advising Bush during his presidential campaign, Rice has lost some shine of late.

Earlier this year, she was criticized for allowing Bush to assert in his January State of the Union address that Iraq was shopping in Africa for uranium "yellowcake" used to make nuclear weapons _ intelligence that turned out to be based on forged documents.

She blamed the CIA, saying if the agency had said, ""Take this out of the speech,' it would have been gone without question."

Her deputy, Stephen Hadley, said two CIA memos and a phone call from CIA Director George Tenet led him to take a similar passage about Iraq and uranium out of an earlier Bush speech, but that this had slipped his mind as the State of the Union address was being written. One of the memos was sent to Rice, but an NSC spokesman said she doesn't recall reading it.

Still, Rice remains one of the closest of Bush confidants.

"I have described her as a weather vane _ Bush's weather vane," Daalder said. "She is more reflective of what Bush is thinking than the other way around."