BLACKBURN, England—Facing protesters and pointed questions, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that the Bush administration had made "thousands" of what she called "tactical mistakes" in Iraq but "it was the right strategic decision" to invade and topple Saddam Hussein.
Rice took a day off from international meetings to pursue some personal diplomacy. Her comment on Iraq was in response to a question from an audience of foreign-policy experts about whether the United States had learned anything from the past three years.
She suggested it will be left to history to judge this White House.
Rice also briefly toured Blackburn's Pleckgate School, where about 150 anti-war protesters gathered outside.
"We do not want her here," said one of the protesters, Shamim Malik, 40. Calling Rice "a war criminal," she said: "I'm against her. I'm against the policy."
Rice was repaying a visit to her hometown of Birmingham, Ala., last fall by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
Along with the anger came some of the celebrity worship that follows her wherever she goes.
Jabbar Khan, 16, who was among the students who greeted Rice on the school's front steps, said afterward, "We should be proud to have such a high-profile visitor to our school." But he sheepishly admitted that many students cut class—"skived off," as he put it—to join the protests.
While Prime Minister Tony Blair sent British troops to Iraq and has staunchly backed Bush, U.S. foreign policy remains deeply unpopular here. After Bush's re-election in 2004, a British Broadcasting Corp. poll found that only 29 percent of Britons thought the outcome was a positive development for world peace.
The trends are especially strong in Britain's gritty northwest, a region that's going through an economic recovery and is known as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and the Beatles. South Asians make up 26 percent of the population of Blackburn, which Straw represents in Parliament, and the figure is growing.
Rice's planned visit to a mosque Saturday was canceled because of local divisions about it. She'll meet Muslim leaders at a neutral site instead.
She and Straw met with the policy experts and spoke at Ewood Park, home of the Blackburn Rovers soccer club.
"I think that if there are indeed different views that it's best to express them, not to keep them bottled up," Rice said. "If it is not possible for me to go someplace and to be willing to encounter people with different views, then I'm really not doing my job."
Rice visited a factory where workers assemble portions of the proposed Joint Strike Fighter aircraft; heard gospel singers at the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts, whose alumni include Sir Paul McCartney and the late George Harrison; and ended the day with a performance by the Liverpool Philharmonic.
Rice, who was asked twice if she had presidential ambitions and said no, gave a lengthy defense of the U.S. policy of trying to bring democracy to the Middle East, including removing Saddam.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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