Muslims criticize Rice in Britain

Secretary of state meets with leaders, encounters protests during visit

April 02, 2006|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BLACKBURN, England -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heard passionate complaints yesterday from British Muslims about U.S. polices in Iraq, toward the Palestinians and at the American-run detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Some of the complaints were voiced respectfully by Muslim leaders who met with Rice. Others were chanted, shouted and screamed by anti-Iraq-war protesters, who were present almost everywhere the secretary went during what her team planned as a goodwill visit.

Local commentary on Rice's two-day outreach visit to northwest England has been harsh.

Yesterday morning's Guardian newspaper carried a half-page cartoon showing Rice and her host, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, holding a banner that said, "The Case for War." The banner was riddled with holes, and the caption read, "four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire," a wry reference to the words of the Beatles song "A Day in the Life."

Kam Kothia, one of the Muslim community leaders who met for an hour with Rice, said the group respectfully told her that "we want to see change" in U.S. policies in the Muslim world. He said he told Rice that the Bush administration should engage, not isolate, the new Hamas government in the Palestinian areas because it was democratically elected in a process Washington backed.

"Generally, a very good dialogue was had," Kothia said. But, he added, "I'm not naive enough to think this particular meeting" can alter U.S. policy.

The anger at U.S. policies shows the hurdles Rice and her public diplomacy chief, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, face as they aggressively try to improve the U.S. image in the Muslim world. Their message is usually drowned out in a torrent of complaints about U.S. policies that affect Muslims.

In the streets outside the town hall of Blackburn, where Rice met with the Muslim leaders, more than 100 protesters, many of them of Indian and Pakistani descent, denounced Rice's visit.

"Not welcome here," read signs bearing the secretary's photograph with a line through it.

Asked what she'd learned from the visit, Rice said, "I certainly think you hear a passion about a number of issues."

She defended the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, where some terrorism suspects have been held for years without trial. She said the United States did not want to keep the prison open longer than necessary but added, "If the alternative is to release people back on the street so they can do harm again, that we're not going to do."

Rice said, "The United States recognizes ... that there are questions about American foreign policy." But, she said, Muslims should give the Bush administration credit for ending a six-decade policy of backing dictators in the Middle East and promoting democracy instead.

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