BLACKBURN (Reuters) – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Muslim leaders in northwest England on Saturday in a trip during which protesters expressed anger that an architect of the Iraq war was on their home turf.
About 200 noisy protesters waited for Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw at town hall in Blackburn, chanting “Condoleezza Rice Go Home” and “No War.”
“They (protesters) have their freedom of speech and I’m glad they did it,” said Mayor Yusef Janvirmani, who shook hands with protesters before formally welcoming Rice.
Rice waved at supporters and protesters alike on her arrival and seemed undeterred by chanting demonstrators, who were kept behind barriers by dozens of police, some on horseback.
The mayor, who opposes the war in Iraq, said Rice was welcome in his town and her visit would be good for the region’s economy. Any publicity was good publicity, he said.
Rice, invited to Straw’s constituency after he visited her home state of Alabama last year, has particularly irked Blackburn’s Muslims in a visit that produced more photos of angry protesters than the positive pictures Rice’s image-makers were hoping for.
Muslims make up around 20 percent of the former cotton town’s population and many were clearly angered by Straw’s invitation to America’s top diplomat.
Rice had been due to visit a mosque in Blackburn until its governors withdrew their invitation out of fear the trip would be hijacked by demonstrators.
Most Muslim anger has been directed at Rice over her involvement in the Iraq war. Rice was U.S. national security adviser at the time of the March 2003 invasion.
In answer to questions after a foreign policy speech at Blackburn Rovers’ soccer stadium on Friday, Rice conceded that thousands of “tactical errors” were made in Iraq but she said the strategy of removing Saddam Hussein was the correct one.
Local and national newspapers have devoted reams of pages to Rice’s visit to Blackburn and Liverpool.
The Liverpool Daily Post splashed a picture on its front page of police holding back chanting protesters and devoted the first five pages to Rice’s visit.
Cartoons lampooned the visit with The Independent carrying one showing a sign at a Blackburn Indian restaurant: “We regret we do not serve Rice.”
The Guardian had a half-page cartoon with Straw and Rice holding up a bullet-pocked banner saying “The case for War” with protesters standing behind them.
Protesters are also angered by the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay Naval base in Cuba where human rights groups say foreign terrorism suspects are being held in inhumane conditions.
Rice defended U.S. policy of holding terror detainees and said the Bush administration did not allow torture and also did not want to become the “world’s jailer.”
Liverpool council leader Warren Bradley gave Rice’s staff a letter calling for the immediate closure of Guantanamo Bay and asking for assurances that no detainees held by America were subject to torture.