JAKARTA - U.S. goodwill envoy Karen Hughes got a earful from a group of mostly female Indonesian Muslim students on Friday, who expressed anger at the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and attacked Washington's foreign policies.
Tasked by U.S. President George W. Bush to polish America's image overseas, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy is in Jakarta to meet leading Muslim clerics and students during a tour of the world's most populous Muslim nation.
U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes (R) speaks during a discussion with a group of Indonesian Muslim students at the Syarif Hidayatullah University in Jakarta October 21, 2005. U.S. goodwill envoy Hughes got an earful from a group of mostly female Indonesian Muslim students on Friday, who expressed anger at the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and attacked Washington's foreign policies. REUTERS/Crack Palinggi
"Why does America always act as if they were the police of the world?," Barikatul Hikmah, a 20-year-old student at the Syarif Hidayatullah University asked Hughes.
Lailatul Qadar, a petite 19-year-old student wearing colorful headscarves, added: "It's Bush in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and maybe it's going to be in Indonesia, I don't know. Who's the terrorist? Bush or us?"
The U.S. embassy organized the session with some 15 students at the university, a moderate Islamic center of learning that has received U.S. funding and which produces some of the country's most influential Muslim thinkers.
Hughes, who was largely composed and subdued during the session, defended the invasion of Iraq as necessary to protect the United States following the September 11, 2001, attacks because the administration saw Saddam Hussein as a security threat.
"After all he had used weapons of mass destruction against his own people like he murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent people using poison gas against them," she said.
"After September 11, the leaders of America had to look at the threat of the world in a very different way ... I think you have to understand the horror and the shocks that Americans went through."
Saddam Hussein is expected to face charges over a poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 which killed about 5,000 people. He has said the deaths were the result of a battle nearby with Iranian forces, which also used gas.
Kurdish leaders say that during more than two years of oppression up to 200,000 Kurds were killed in purges and military campaigns, including the Anfal offensive in the late 1980s.
Saddam has also been accused of war crimes committed during Iraq's eight-year war with Iran, which he launched in 1980, in which both sides are accused of using chemical weapons.
FOCUS ON IRAQ
Most of the handpicked students who spoke at the one hour session in Jakarta focused on Iraq.
Indonesia has long had strong relations with the United States and is a key ally in the war against terrorism, especially in the wake of bomb attacks on Indonesian soil by Islamic militants linked to al Qaeda.
But Indonesian Muslims deeply opposed the invasion of Iraq and Bush has been the target of protesters' anger during periodic demonstrations against U.S. policies. Many accuse the U.S. government of also showing favoritism toward Israel.
Hughes is a close confidante and image-shaper of Bush with no previous experience in foreign diplomacy other than accompanying him abroad during trips in the first years of his presidency.
On a five-day visit to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey last month -- her first trip in the new job -- she also heard frank views from women in those countries.
Hughes is scheduled to visit Malaysia after Indonesia.
Another female student at the session said Iraqis should decide for themselves in their own time whether they wanted to establish a democratic government.
"Your country's foreign policy has created hostilities among Muslims," the student said.
Hughes' visit comes as the United States tries to limit damage from television images appearing to show U.S. soldiers burning the corpses of two Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and using the incident for propaganda.
She was not asked about the incident at the university.
© Copyright Reuters Ltd 2005