Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday progress toward democracy is being made in the Middle East and that it's important the United States not leave Iraq before its mission is finished — or the consequences would be severe.

Rice addressed thousands of American Legion members at its annual convention hours after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld likened critics of the Bush administration's war strategy to those who tried to appease the Nazis in the 1930s.

Both used their speeches as a lead up to the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, with Rice saying that the Bush administration has done much to limit the ability of Al Qaeda to travel and funnel money toward its causes.

"We are making America safer," Rice said. "We are waging a global war on terrorism and we are breaking the back of the Al Qaeda network."

Rice said the United States is safer for having chosen to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Because we've gone on the offensive, America is safer but we are not yet safe. We know that every day, each and every day, violent extremists are plotting new ways to do us harm. We know for now and many years to come America and our allies will be engaged in a long war," Rice said.

Rice said she and President Bush believe that the United States is called to put an end to the root causes of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by helping people in the Middle East fight against an ideology that thrives on oppression.

"The dream of some that we could avoid this conflict, that we did not have to take sides in this battle in the Middle East, that dream was demolished on Sept. 11 as we learned on that fateful day that America's stake in this struggle is very clear," she said.

Rice acknowledged there have been setbacks in the war in Iraq, but progress has been made there and in other Middle East countries as evidenced by participation in democratic elections in Iraq and Egypt.

"Five years ago who would have thought that a vibrant debate about democratic reform, economic reform and social form would be raging in every country — not whether to proceed, but how to proceed," Rice said.

She also said Iraqi troops are increasingly willing to take on additional responsibilities in securing their country.

Rice's speech was well received by many veterans in attendance, who gave her louder welcoming applause than Rumsfeld.

"I think it was pretty outstanding," said legionnaire Henry Bowman of Norman, Okla. "It was straight forward and forceful."

Rice and Rumsfeld both made clear connections between the Sept. 11 attacks and America's involvement in Iraq as a front line in the war on terror.

"We should not assume for one minute those terrorists will not continue to come after the American homeland. That is why President Bush calls Iraq a central front in the war on terror," Rice said.

U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also made a connection to America fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as a reason no terrorist attacks have occurred on U.S. soil since Sept. 11.

Hatch addressed American Legion members earlier in the day, along with other members of Utah's congressional delegation and Salt Lake County's mayor. Noticeably absent was Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, a Democrat, who is organizing a protest Wednesday against Bush's policies. Anderson was not invited to speak at the convention.

Hatch apologized to Legion members for the planned protests.