Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), defending the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to a skeptical international audience, said Saturday he is confident Saddam Hussein's (search) removal eventually will spread "seeds of freedom" through the Middle East.

In a sign that prewar diplomatic rifts continue, however, Germany's foreign minister warned of "possibly fatal consequences" for NATO should the alliance take a direct role in Iraq's reconstruction that resulted in failure. Russia's defense minister, whose government also opposed the war, said military force should be used only "within the realm" of international law.

Rumsfeld made an impassioned defense of the U.S. role in the world, contending that Arab television networks' coverage was contributing to the decline in America's image abroad by promoting the notion that Americans are imperialists.

"I know in my heart and my brain that America ain't what's wrong with the world," Rumsfeld told a German questioner after his speech.

"To the extent that that concept is promoted, as it is," Rumsfeld said, "only time will deal with that."

Rumsfeld asserted that the war showed other "rogue regimes" what could happen if they should refuse to come clean about disarming. He did not mention that inspectors have failed to find banned weapons in Iraq, a principal reason the Bush administration gave for invading last March.

The secretary suggested that Libya had an eye on what had happened to Iraq when the Libyan leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi (search), voluntarily ended his weapons ambitions in December.

"We may never know exactly why Saddam Hussein chose the destruction of his regime over peaceful disarmament," Rumsfeld said at the Munich Conference on Security Policy (search).

"But we know this: It was his choice, and if he had chosen differently -- if his regime had taken the steps that Libya is now taking, there would have been no war," the secretary said.

Rumsfeld said there was more at stake in Iraq than just banned weapons. He asserted that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have liberated 50 million oppressed people.

"It's critical that our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan be successful," he said. "Because once the seeds of freedom are sown in the Middle Eastern soil, I believe they can spread across that region just as they spread across Europe during the course of the last half-century."

Without mentioning the administration's prewar claims that Iraq had large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, Rumsfeld said the war was worth the cost.

"The last 12 months has provided to the world's rogue regimes two different models of behavior: the path of cooperation and the path of defiance," he said.

"The lessons from those experiences should be clear: pursuit of weapons of mass murder can carry with it costs. By contrast, leaders who abandon the pursuit of those weapons and the means to deliver them will find an open path to better relations with the free nations of the world," Rumsfeld said.

As for NATO's involvement in Iraq, the United States has encouraged the alliance to consider a direct role but has not pressed the issue until Iraq regains self-rule, which is scheduled to occur July 1.

NATO's new secretary-general insisted the alliance should not rule out a role in Iraq.

"If a legitimate Iraqi government asks for our assistance, and if we have the support of the United Nations, NATO should not abdicate from its responsibilities," Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told the conference.

The discussion about Iraq at this year's conference was less contentious than a year ago. Still, Rumsfeld offered a spirited defense of the war and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said the invasion and its chaotic aftermath proved that his government's opposition was sound.

"We were not and are still not convinced of the validity of the reasons for war," Fischer said in opening remarks.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, whose government also opposed the war, was less explicit in his criticism but questioned the "admissibility of the unilateral use of force."

Without mentioning Iraq, Ivanov said, "It is wrong to fight terrorism with illegal techniques." He also said Iraq had "turned into a real magnet for terrorists" in the Middle East.

Fischer said the Iraq problem requires a broader plan for peace in the Middle East.