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Rice meets Syrian, Iranian foreign ministers

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held the highest-level contact with Syria in more than two years on Thursday and greeted Iran’s foreign minister during a major international conference on Iraq.
/ Source: Reuters

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held the highest-level contact with Syria in more than two years on Thursday and greeted Iran’s foreign minister during a major international conference on Iraq.

Rice’s encounters marked a shift in President Bush’s once-resolute opposition to top-level contacts with Syria and Iran as Washington seeks ways to end the Iraq conflict.

She described her 30-minute meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem as “professional and businesslike” and said she had urged Syria to stop foreign fighters entering Iraq. Moualem said the talks were “frank and constructive.”

“I didn’t lecture him, he didn’t lecture me,” Rice told reporters. “The Syrians clearly say that stability in Iraq is in their interest, but actions will speak louder than words and we will have to see how this develops.”

Washington has accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to enter Iraq through the long border between the two countries and is pressing for an international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

A U.N. investigation has implicated Lebanese and Syrian security officials in the killing, but Damascus denies this.

The U.S. military acknowledged on Thursday Syria was doing more to stop the flow of fighters into Iraq. A spokesman said the military had observed a reduction in the last month.

The talks between Rice and Moualem occurred in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on the sidelines of the conference on Iraq, involving debt relief and other measures to support Baghdad in exchange for political reforms.

The conference produced some debt relief for Iraq but this was largely overshadowed by Rice’s contacts with Syria and Iran.

Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki briefly exchanged pleasantries during lunch but did not discuss politics, said U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

“They said hello. It was not about substance,” said McCormack. He did not say whether further contacts were likely.

Notable Iran-U.S. encounter
Talks between Rice and Mottaki were one of the highest-level encounters between Washington and Tehran since the 1979 revolution turned Iran from a close U.S. ally into the arch-foe Islamic republic.

Western diplomats acknowledge Shiite Muslim Iran is an influential force on Iraq, both as a neighbor and because of its links with elements in the Shiite-led Iraqi government.

Washington has accused Iran of fomenting violence in Iraq. Tehran rejects the charges.

No meeting has been set up between the two in Egypt but Rice has said she would not avoid contact with Mottaki.

Lower level U.S. and Iranian envoys spoke to each other directly about Iraq at regional talks in Baghdad in March.

The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980 over a 1979-81 hostage crisis when Iranian students held 52 U.S. citizens for 444 days.

U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in March 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, but U.S. troops have since failed to stamp out sectarian violence and defeat insurgents who draw support from the Sunni Arab minority once-dominant under Saddam.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the Egypt meeting donor countries, including Britain, Saudi Arabia and China, had pledged to waive $30 billion in Iraqi debt.

Iraqi Finance Minister Bayan Jabor said Iraq had rejected as unacceptable an offer from Russia to forgive the debt it was owed by Baghdad in return for access to a major Iraqi oilfield.

Iraq sits on the world’s third-largest proven crude oil reserves but is struggling to rebuild after four years of war.