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Rice hears complaints from British Muslims

BLACKBURN, England—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heard passionate complaints Saturday 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.

Saturday morning's Guardian newspaper carried a half-page cartoon showing Rice and her host, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, holding a banner which 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 "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 terrorist 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 that "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.

Rice's visit to Blackburn, which is Straw's hometown, was an exchange following Straw's visit to her hometown, Birmingham, Ala., last fall.

On Saturday, Rice was forced to cancel a visit to a mosque in Blackburn because some religious leaders opposed it.

Blackburn Mayor Yusuf Jan-Virmani said he agreed with the protests against the Iraq war. "I'm glad they're doing it," he said. But he said he was "honored" by Rice's visit to Blackburn, an industrial city of 100,000 that is more than 20 percent Muslim and is still struggling, like parts of the U.S. Rust Belt, to revive itself. Any publicity "is very good for our economy," he said.

Rice said at a press conference with Straw that she didn't mind the protests. "And indeed, I've been very warmly welcomed," she said. While she spoke, the shouts of demonstrators could be heard in the streets below.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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