Protests at Vietnam Leader's U.S. Visit

Phan Van Khai (search), the first Vietnamese prime minister to visit the United States since the end of the war 30 years ago, called on Vietnamese emigres to help strengthen ties between the two countries as he began a weeklong tour aimed at improving relations with Washington.

"It is our government's consistent policy to consider the Vietnamese community living abroad as an important and integral part of our nation and our resources," Khai said Sunday.

Meanwhile, demonstrators gathered on downtown streets, shouting "Down with communists," and calling for an end to political and religious persecution in Vietnam. Some held signs that read "Khai is another Saddam Hussein."

Sai Nguyen (search), an organizer with the Vietnamese American Coalition in Northwest America, criticized the Communist Party's push to open the Vietnamese economy to foreign investors, saying it would not improve the lives of the people.

"It is only to help the party," he said.

Khai, 71, arrived Sunday morning and stopped first at Boeing's (search) plant in Renton, south of Seattle, to oversee the purchase of four 787 airliners by Vietnam Airlines. On Monday, he is to visit the Redmond campus of Microsoft, which has an office in Vietnam.

Besides meeting President Bush and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, Khai is also scheduled to visit the presidents of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Khai said during a news conference Sunday that Vietnam will continue working with the United States to strengthen its economy.

"Despite differences on sensitive issues, it should be noted that there are not major differences between the two countries," he said through an interpreter.

Khai seeks Bush's help in gaining Vietnam's admittance to the World Trade Organization. In the 10 years since diplomatic ties were restored, the United States has become Vietnam's top trading partner. The two-way trade was worth $6.4 billion last year.

Khai said increased economic development in Vietnam will improve people's lives and bring stability to Southeast Asia, and asked Vietnamese living in the United States to help bolster the connection between the two countries.

More than 1 million Vietnamese now live in the United States, including an estimated 130,000 in California's Orange County. On Saturday, demonstrators marched and carried U.S. and former South Vietnamese flags in the county's Little Saigon area.

The Seattle demonstrators hoped their presence would let Khai know that Vietnamese Americans want him to address human-rights abuses that continue in Vietnam, said Nhien Le, a former officer in the South Vietnamese Air Force.

"Compared with all the countries in southeast Asia, we are at the bottom. That's why we fight for the freedom," Le said.

Khai said Vietnam has worked to address concerns about human rights abuses.

"If they come back to the homeland and have returned, in reality, they will have different views," Khai said.

But the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch urged the United States to question Vietnam's civil rights record. The group said it has documented cases of abuses by the communist government, including the arrests of dissidents for promoting democracy or human rights.