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Rice says mistakes made in Iraq, defends strategy

Written by: Staff
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BLACKBURN, England, Mar 31 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accepted today the United States had probably made thousands of errors in Iraq but defended the overall strategy of removing Saddam Hussein.

Local Muslims and anti-war activists told Rice to ''Go Home'' when British counterpart Jack Straw earlier led her on a tour of his home town of Blackburn in the industrial northwest, an area which rarely plays host to overseas politicians.

''Yes, I know we have made tactical errors, thousands of them,'' she said in answer to a question over whether lessons had been learned since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

''I believe strongly that it was the right strategic decision, that Saddam had been a threat to the international community long enough,'' she added.

Earlier, about 250 protesters gathered outside a school which Rice visited, waving placards urging her to go home and shouting as her motorcade arrived.

Many of them were locals from Straw's constituency of Blackburn, a former cotton town with a 20 percent Muslim population. Straw invited Rice to the area after he toured her home state of Alabama last year.

Protesters had already persuaded a mosque in the town to withdraw its invitation to her.

''The Muslim population is very angry. She's not welcome in Blackburn,'' said Suliman, one of the demonstrators outside Pleckgate school, where Rice met young pupils.

''How many lives per gallon?'' asked one of the placards held aloft, in reference to the US invasion of oil-rich Iraq which many Britons opposed.

During a visit to a Student Council meeting at the school, Rice was asked whether she was upset by the demonstrators.

''Oh, it's OK, people have a right to protest and a right to make their views known,'' Rice told the teenage student.

''Each individual all over the world has the God-given right to express themselves. I'm not just going to visit places where people agree with me. That would be really unfortunate.'' SYMPATHY FOR EARTHQUAKE VICTIMS Rice delivered her speech alongside Straw in the somewhat incongruous setting of Blackburn Rovers' soccer stadium, where she was given a Number 10 jersey from one of England's teams.

She arrived in Britain late yesterday from Paris and, before that, Berlin, where she discussed the next steps in dealing with Iran's nuclear programme with officials from Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China.

Rice said she supported Straw's view that sanctions should be considered against Iran if it does not comply with calls to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

''Iran is going to have to make a choice... accept a way to the development of civil nuclear power... or face deeper isolation,'' said Rice.

While Rice and Straw both had tough words to say about Iran, they expressed sympathy for the victims of an earthquake which killed at least 66 people in the west of the country.

''(It's) very shocking, with what seems to be a large loss of life,'' Straw said during a visit to a Britain Aerospace factory where the United States and Britain are involved in a joint project for fighter aircraft.

Rice's trip is expected to be heavy on photo opportunities and light on discussion, as was Straw's trip to the American south in October.

It will give Rice a chance to indulge her passion for The Beatles. She was due later to travel to Liverpool where she will attend a concert and visit a performing arts centre founded by former Beatle Paul McCartney.

REUTERS KD RAI2132

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