| Protesters dressed as Guantanamo Bay inmates carry a coffin during a demonstration in Liverpool. (AFP)
Blackburn (England), April 1 (Reuters): US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice met Muslim leaders in northwest England today in a trip during which protesters expressed anger that an architect of the Iraq war was on their home turf.
About 300 protesters chanted slogans such as “Condoleezza Rice Go Home” and “No War” while Rice and British foreign secretary Jack Straw spoke with Muslim leaders at the town hall. The protesters’ noisy cries were clearly audible at a news conference after the meeting.
Rice waved at supporters and protesters alike on her arrival and seemed undeterred by the demonstrators, who were kept behind barriers by dozens of police, some on horseback. “They (protesters) have their freedom of speech and I’m glad they did it,” said mayor Yusef Janvirmani, who shook hands with protesters before formally welcoming Rice.
The mayor, who opposes the war in Iraq, said Rice was welcome in his town and her visit would be good for the region's economy.
Any publicity was good publicity, he said. Rice said she thought she had been “very warmly welcomed” to Blackburn and had enjoyed her visit.
Straw, asked if he was embarrassed by all the protests, said he hoped journalists would also notice the “strength of positive feeling and affection” for his American guest.
Rice, invited to Straw’s constituency after he visited her home state of Alabama last year, has particularly irked Blackburn’s Muslims in a visit that produced more photos of angry protesters than the positive pictures Rice’s image-makers were hoping for.
Muslims make up around 20 per cent of the former cotton town’s population and many were clearly angered by Straw’s invitation to America’s top diplomat.
Rice had been due to visit a mosque in Blackburn until its governors withdrew their invitation out of fear the occasion would be hijacked by demonstrators.
Both Straw and Rice said the meeting with Blackburn’s Muslim leaders had gone well and focused on US and British policy towards the Palestinians, Iraq, Israel and Iran.
“We hope that the message she takes back from the Muslim community in Blackburn is that we want to see change in Palestine, in Iraq, in Afghanistan,” said Kam Kothia, a member of the Muslim community who met Rice.
Most Muslim anger has been directed at Rice over her involvement in the Iraq war. Rice was US national security adviser at the time of the March 2003 invasion.
Cartoons lampooned the visit with The Independent carrying one showing a sign at a Blackburn Indian restaurant: “We regret we do not serve Rice.”