[WASHINGTON] Hillary Clinton stood her ground firmly during 11 hours of questioning over the 2012 Benghazi attacks, parrying Republican blows at a high-stakes congressional hearing that could impact her bid for the White House.
Partisan fireworks exploded repeatedly between Republican and Democrat members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi during Thursday's marathon grilling that at times took on the character of an interrogation.
But the Democratic frontrunner for president remained composed. She accused her rivals of exploiting the deadly attacks in Libya - which came under her watch as secretary of state - for political gain.
Mrs Clinton endured four hours-long sessions over the course of the day.
In her highly anticipated testimony Mrs Clinton acknowledged - as she has done in the past - her share of blame for the attack which cost the lives of four Americans including ambassador Christopher Stevens.
"I take responsibility for what happened in Benghazi," she said. "I'm here to honor the service of those four men." But she firmly rebutted claims that she failed to boost security at the US diplomatic compound overrun by Islamist extremists on September 11, 2012, saying she was never consulted directly about requests for additional measures.
The Benghazi tragedy has hovered over Mrs Clinton for three years, threatening to upend her White House candidacy, especially after the inquiry launched 17 months ago led to revelations that she used a personal email account and server while she was top US diplomat.
Her strong performance at the hearing could help Mrs Clinton convince skeptical voters that it is time to move on from the controversy that has overshadowed her campaign.
Had she stumbled badly on such a consequential day, it would have invited enhanced scrutiny of her judgment and diplomatic acumen during the run-up to the November 2016 election.
Democratic lawmakers on the panel occasionally lashed out their Republican colleagues in Mrs Clinton's defense.
"If we stay here much longer, you're going to have to take that 3 am phone call from the committee room," said Democratic panel member Adam Schiff. He was referring to a famous Clinton ad during the 2008 presidential campaign suggesting that she would be best prepared to handle national emergencies, even in the middle of the night.
President Barack Obama's top diplomat from 2009 to 2013 warned against the "partisan agendas" that Democrats say are driving the Benghazi probe.
"Let's be worthy of the trust the American people have bestowed upon us. They expect us to lead, to learn the right lessons, to rise above partisanship and to reach for statesmanship," she said in opening remarks.
There were several sharp exchanges with Republicans, including over the way the administration first publicly characterised the attack - which came weeks before the 2012 presidential election - as a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video.
"Libya was supposed to be... this great success story for the Obama White House and the Clinton State Department," conservative congressman Jim Jordan said in a fiery critique.
"You can live with the protest about a video. That won't hurt you. But a terrorist attack will," he said.
"Where did the false narrative start?" Mr Jordan asked accusingly. "It started with you, Madam Secretary." Mrs Clinton rejected the charge, shooting back at Jordan: "I'm sorry that it doesn't fit your narrative, congressman." The Benghazi committee has been deeply controversial and in recent weeks GOP lawmakers including number two House Republican Kevin McCarthy suggested that the panel served to help damage Mrs Clinton's standing in the presidential race.
Democrats have piled on, accusing Republicans of conducting a US$4.7 million witch hunt against Mrs Clinton.
"We're better than using taxpayer dollars to try to destroy a campaign," boomed the committee's top Democrat, Elijah Cummings.
"That's not what America is all about." Committee chairman Trey Gowdy denied the probe was about Mrs Clinton, saying it sought "nothing but the truth."
On Twitter, the reviews of Mrs Clinton's performance were overwhelmingly positive. Many people said it would be a tremendous boost to her presidential campaign.
Congress has conducted seven probes into the Benghazi attack, and Mrs Clinton launched an Accountability Review Board to investigate the events.
The board's report did not fault the State Department but cited "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels" that resulted in inadequate security.
Critics have pointed to the department's rebuff of requests for additional US security measures in Libya, left unstable after Moamer Kadhafi's ouster.
Mrs Clinton insisted such requests, or rejection of requests, rarely reached her desk.
"None of them with respect to security in Benghazi did," she said.
At one point, Republican Peter Roskam argued that Mrs Clinton used Kadhafi's 2011 overthrow as a way to "turn progress in Libya into a political win for Hillary Mrs Clinton." She rejected that.
"I would imagine I've thought more about what happened than all of you put together," she said later.
"I have been wracking my brain about what more could have been done or should have been done."