Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has thanked Australia for its role in Iraq and predicted that democracy-building there will succeed. In Sydney, she encountered heckling by anti-war protesters in a forum with university students.
Though the Australian government has backed the United States with the deployment of several-hundred troops in Iraq, opinion polls here indicate that a majority of Australians are concerned about the war and the direction of U.S. foreign policy.
The misgivings were evident at a public forum Secretary Rice held with students at the University of Sydney. Anti-war activists demonstrated outside the hall, while inside, the secretary's appearance was twice disrupted by a handful of protesters who shouted, before being escorted outside, that the she is a war criminal with blood on her hands.
Protester: "Iraqi blood is on your hands, and you can not wash that blood away!"
Rice: "I am very glad to see that democracy is well and alive here at the university. I am also especially glad to note that democracy will now also be alive and well at the university of Kabul and the university of Baghdad."
The secretary said she understood that many oppose the approach the Bush administration took after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and that criticism in a democracy is fair.
But she said it cannot be argued that the Middle East of 2001 was a better place than it is today, with what she called the "malignancy" of the region's politics producing the terrorism of al-Qaida, with Saddam Hussein still in power in Baghdad, while Syrian forces controlled Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority was in the hands of Yasser Arafat.
"It is not as if the administration's policies have somehow upset a pristine and stable Middle East that was marching toward progress," she said. "In fact it has overturned 60 years of policies that turned a blind eye to the freedom gap in the Middle East, that turned a blind eye or responded weakly to terrorist attack, after terrorist attack, after terrorist attack. And I know that that is hard. But I believe that history will demonstrate that it was the right decision
Earlier at a meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, she expressed gratitude for the sacrifices of U.S. allies such as Australia, who were determined, as she put it, "to see the Iraqi people of Iraq have this chance." She said despite daily headlines of violence, there is a very good chance that Iraqis, with the support of the U.S.-led military coalition, will build a good foundation for a stable and secure country over the next couple of years.
Australia has about a thousand soldiers in Iraq, mainly in the southern part of the country, protecting non-combat Japanese soldiers involved in reconstruction projects.
Several hundred more Australians are in coalition support roles in the Middle East, and the country's defense minister, Brendan Nelson, said this week Australia will maintain its presence well into 2007.