On the eve of her controversial commencement speech at Boston College, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice celebrated her critics' right to object to her presence. But she defended the Bush administration's actions in Iraq and challenged her critics' assertions that the Iraq war clashed with Catholic morals.
''Christians are of course on both sides of the argument about the use of force -- when it is indeed just to use force and when it is not," she said at a news conference yesterday.
''We have overthrown a dictator who brutalized his population. . . . Sometimes you have to get rid of really, really bad regimes," she said.
Boston College's announcement on May 1 that Rice would speak at graduation today and would receive an honorary law degree has divided the Jesuit college, and has underscored deep divisions between liberal and conservative Catholics.
Over the past weeks, people on both sides of the debate have written public letters, have started petitions and countering petitions, and have accused one another of selectively invoking Catholic doctrine. One adjunct professor of English, Steve Almond, quit over the invitation.
The controversy will culminate at today's ceremony. Some students and faculty members plan to wear arm bands and turn their backs when Rice gets her degree, and Boston peace activists plan to march and rally outside the ceremony in Alumni Stadium.
Rice said yesterday that her critics are welcome to say whatever they want about her.
''That's the great blessing of living in a free country," she said, adding that she is glad ''the people of Baghdad and people of Kabul are going to enjoy, finally, the same liberty to say what they think that the people of Boston do."
Speaking to a small group of reporters at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in downtown Boston, Rice addressed questions on Iraq and Iran and joked about her reason for accepting Boston College's invitation.
''I am tempted to say it was because they kept beating Notre Dame in football," she said jokingly of the Catholic university in Indiana, where she got a master's degree. ''I wanted to see what was in the water up here."
Rice also studied at a Catholic high school in Colorado, though she is the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.
She said she thought that Catholic colleges were doing a good job trying to balance the desire to ''uphold Catholic traditions and provide a free atmosphere to exchange views" on issues such as abortion and reproductive health.
Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs who is also a Boston College graduate, said her critics should look at more than Iraq, citing Rice's work on Darfur and on AIDS in Africa.
''You have to look at the totality of her work on issues that are of concern to a lot of Americans," Burns said in a phone interview. Opponents of inviting Rice, however, were not swayed. Deborah Levenson, a history professor, said it was impossible to separate Rice from the war in Iraq.
''The issue is the war," she said. ''I'm sure she will give a perfectly beautiful and eloquent speech. But life is not as cheap as words. There was no threat posed to the US by Iraq."