WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Friday that she was "proud" of the US decision to invade Iraq and said the Middle East had improved since President George W. Bush took office.
In an interview with Bloomberg television, Rice also cited progress in North Korea and China as evidence that the Bush administration, which has just seven months left in office, had made strides over the past eight years.
"I am proud by the decision of this administration to overthrow Saddam Hussein. I am proud of the liberation of 20 million Iraqis," Rice said in the interview taped earlier in the week.
"Iraq has been very tough. Tougher than any of us had dreamed. We can never replace the people who have been lost. We can never do anything to soothe the pain of the family and friends that they have left behind, but we are seeing a change in Iraq for the better," she said.
The interview aired as the United States marked the Independence Day holiday. The US military has lost 4,113 personnel since the March 2003 invasion, according to the website www.icasualties.org.
"In the post-9/11 environment, you could not let a threat to peace exist. I know that great historical events go through difficult phases and often emerge with the world left for the better."
Rice said Iran had suffered "setbacks" and Al-Qaeda was "on its heels," while democracy had made a "breakthrough" with women voting in Kuwait, "democratic forces" emerging in the Palestinian territories and "a democracy at the center of the Arab world in Iraq."
"We're now beginning to see that perhaps it's not so popular to be a suicide bomber. We're beginning to see that perhaps people are questioning whether Osama bin Laden ought to really be the face of Islam," she said.
Rice also said progress was being made on North Korea's nuclear disarmament, and that the North Koreans were "putting themselves out of the business of making plutonium."
"With all due respect to those who look at this deal and say somehow North Korea has gotten a great deal, I think one can say that this is a really good step for non-proliferation," Rice said.
China has been "somewhat more helpful" on Darfur, where it has faced allegations of supplying weapons to the government in Khartoum amid years of deadly strife with rebel factions.
Rice reiterated that Bush would attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing despite urgings by rights groups that he boycott.
"The president has been very clear that the Olympics is a sporting event and he's going to go to it as a sporting event," Rice said.
Turning to domestic politics, Rice, who supports Republican White House hopeful John McCain, said people are "fascinated" by Democratic senator Barack Obama's bid to become the first African-American president.
"But I'll tell you something. Ultimately, whoever is elected president of the United States will represent the United States, not as a black president or as a woman president or as a black secretary of state or as a woman secretary of state, but the United States of America,"she said.
Rice, 53, ruled out any such political aspirations for herself, saying that she may write a book and return to work in education after Bush's term expires in January 2009.