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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama was meeting privately Friday with Susan Rice, the embattled U.N. ambassador who abruptly withdrew from consideration to be the next secretary of state after a bitter, weeks long standoff with Republican senators who declared they would fight to defeat her nomination. And White House officials are leaving open the possibility Rice could ascend to National Security Adviser, a position that does not require Senate confirmation, over the next four years.

Her reluctant announcement Thursday makes Democratic Sen. John Kerry, the presidential contender in 2004, the likely choice to be the nation’s next top diplomat when Hillary Rodham Clinton departs soon. Rice withdrew when it became clear her political troubles were not going away, and support inside the White House for her potential nomination had been waning in recent days, administration officials said.

Obama used the occasion to criticize Republicans who were adamantly opposed to Rice’s possible nomination.

“While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks, her decision demonstrates the strength of her character,” he said.

“I am saddened we have reached this point,” Rice said.

Obama made clear she would remain in his inner circle, saying he was grateful she would stay as “our ambassador at the United Nations and a key member of my Cabinet and national security team.” Rice, too, said in her letter she would be staying.

Clinton, in a brief statement, said that Rice had “been an indispensable partner over the past four years” and that she was confident “that she will continue to represent the United States with strength and skill.”

Rice had become the face of the bungled administration account of what happened in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, when four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were killed in what is now known to have been a terrorist attack.

At issue is the explanation Rice offered in TV interviews five days after the attack in Libya. Rice has conceded that her initial account — that a spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Muslim video produced in the U.S. triggered the attack — was wrong, but she has insisted she was not trying to mislead the American people. Information for her account was provided by intelligence officials.

Obama had defiantly declared he would chose her for secretary of state regardless of the political criticism, if he wanted, but such a choice could have gotten his second term off to a turbulent start with Capitol Hill.

In a letter to Obama, Rice said she was convinced the confirmation process would be “lengthy, disruptive and costly.”

“Those of you who know me know that I’m a fighter, but not at the cost of what’s right for our country,” she tweeted later.

Rice may end up close to Obama’s side in another way, as his national security adviser should Tom Donilon move on to another position, though that is not expected imminently. The security adviser position would not require Senate confirmation.

Rice’s efforts to win over skeptical Republican senators in unusual, private sessions on Capitol Hill fell short. The senators emerged from the meetings still expressing doubts about her qualifications.

In a brief statement, a spokesman for one of those senators, John McCain, said McCain “thanks Ambassador Rice for her service to the country and wishes her well. He will continue to seek all the facts surrounding the attack on our consulate in Benghazi.”

In an opinion piece published late Thursday on The Washington Post’s website, Rice said, “In recent weeks, new lines of attack have been raised to malign my character and my career. Even before I was nominated for any new position, a steady drip of manufactured charges painted a wholly false picture of me. This has interfered increasingly with my work on behalf of the United States at the United Nations and with America’s agenda.”

Attention now shifts to Kerry, who came close to winning the presidency in 2004 and has been seen as desiring the State job. In a statement, he made no mention of his own candidacy but praised Rice, who was an adviser to him in his presidential bid. Kerry was an early backer of Obama and was under consideration to become his first secretary of state. Obama has dispatched Kerry to foreign hot spots on his behalf.

Kerry would be almost certain to be easily confirmed by his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

His move would create a potential problem for Democrats by opening a Senate seat — one that recently defeated Republican Sen. Scott Brown is eyeing.

Rice’s decision comes ahead of the anticipated release next week of a report by an Accountability Review Board into the attack on the Benghazi mission. The report ordered by Clinton focuses on the run-up to and the actual attack and is not expected to mention Rice’s role in its aftermath.

Clinton is to testify about the report before Congress next Thursday.

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Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Julie Pace, Donna Cassata, Ken Thomas, Matthew Lee and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.