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Rice Defends Iraq Policy at Baptist Convention

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended Bush administration policy in Iraq, and American engagement abroad, in an address to a major Christian group. She told the convention of Southern Baptists in North Carolina that U.S. intervention does not assure Iraq will become a successful democracy, but that the chance of success is worth the price.

The latest public opinion polls indicate that a majority of Americans now believe that intervention in Iraq was a mistake. But there was no indication of flagging support for administration policy at the Southern Baptist convention in Greensboro.

The audience of 12,000 gave Secretary Rice repeated standing ovations as she defended the U.S. military role in Iraq and Afghanistan, and depicted the United States as an indispensable defender of human rights around the world.

Rice was one of a handful of administration officials who knew in advance about President Bush's visit to Iraq Tuesday. She said the image of the President meeting with elected Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would have been unthinkable a few years ago, and is evidence that the sacrifice of American soldiers in Iraq has been worth it:

"Who could have imagined that these two democratic leaders would be standing together in Baghdad in the very same palace where Saddam Hussein and his henchmen conducted their tyranny, plundered their country and condemned thousands, hundreds of thousands, of innocent Iraqis to death? It has happened because of the hope and dedication of millions of ordinary Iraqis. And it has happened ladies and gentlemen, because of the courage and the sacrifice of America's fighting men and women," she said.

Rice drew another ovation when she cited the death at the hands of U.S. forces last week of Iraqi insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

She said the United States, when possible, is bringing terrorists to justice, but when necessary she said it is "bringing justice to the terrorists."

The secretary of state, whose father and grandfather were Presbyterian ministers, made repeated references to her own faith and prayer, and cast U.S. efforts to promote freedom of worship and to combat human trafficking and slavery around the world in religious terms.

The mainly conservative Southern Baptists are considered a key Republican Party constituency, and Rice's appearance at the convention prompted renewed talk about her future after the State Department.

Rice fares better than other key Bush administration cabinet members in opinion polls and has been widely mentioned as a potential contender for the White House in 2008. But she has consistently denied having presidential ambitions.