Rice Talks Iraq With Top Syrian Official

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attends the opening session of the Iraq conference at the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt Thursday, May 3, 2007. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet Syria's foreign minister Thursday in the first high-level talks between the two countries in years, a U.S. official said. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
AP Photo/Nasser Nuri
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she raised the issue of foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria in talks with Syria's foreign minister Thursday but "didn't lecture him" in the first high-level meeting in years between the two countries.

Rice described her half-hour with Syria's Walid Moallem on the sidelines of a major regional conference on Iraq as "professional" and "businesslike."

It was such a delicate diplomatic moment that there wasn't even a photo op, reports CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar.

As he left the meeting, the Syrian foreign minister was mobbed, adds MacVicar. They talked about Iraq, he said, and relations between the two countries. The Syrians say they hope this is a new beginning.

Just before secretary Rice's meeting with Syria, the U.S. military acknowledged that Syria has clamped down on foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq, adds CBS News national security correspondent David Martin.

"There has been some movement by the Syrians," said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell. "There has been a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq" for more than a month.

It's been five months since the Iraq Study Group urged the Bush administration to begin talking to Syria and Iran "with urgency" and "without preconditions," reports Martin. The group reasoned that diplomacy could only help America get out the Iraq War sooner.

But the Bush administration has shunned Syria, accusing it of fueling tensions in Iraq and Lebanon — and it assailed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her visit last month to Damascus.

"There was an opportunity to talk about the problem of foreign fighters — a major source of the suicide bombings. I thought it was a good opportunity to talk to the foreign minister about it," Rice said after the meeting.

"I didn't lecture him, and he didn't lecture me," Rice said.

She said she was not seeking a similar meeting with Iran's foreign minister.

The Iraqi government is pressing for talks between Rice and Iran's foreign minister, saying Washington's conflict with the government in Tehran is fueling instability in Iraq.

Rice and the Iranian "said hello, that's about it," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, although both American and Iranian officials had earlier spoken favorably of a possible meeting.

Rice's meeting with Moallem marked the first such high-level talks since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria denies it had anything to do with the killing, but U.S. and European officials have since shunned the Damascus government.

Rice said the talks were limited to Iraqi security. "I made clear we don't want to have a difficult relationship with Syria, but we need to have some basis for a better relationship."

Syria's official news agency SANA said Rice and Moallem discussed "the situation in Iraq and the need to achieve security and stability in that country" and the need to develop U.S.-Syrian ties "in a way that serves the achievement of peace, security and stability in the region."

Baghdad and the United States hope Thursday and Friday's conference of nearly 50 nations at this Egyptian Red Sea resort will rally strong international support — particularly from Arab nations — for an ambitious plan to stabilize Iraq.

The United States pressed hard in the weeks before the conference to get Arab countries' participation and urge them to forgive Iraq's billions of dollars of debt — and it was with that request that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki opened the conference.

But Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, made no immediate public pledge, telling the conference only that his country "has expressed its readiness to alleviate some of the debts on Iraq."

Al-Faisal said Saudi Arabia was negotiating the issue with Iraq "in line with the regulations and bases of the Paris Club" — which calls for forgiving 80 percent of Iraq's debts.

Iraqi and U.S. officials had said Saudi Arabia privately had already committed to forgiving 80 percent of Iraq's $17 billion debt.

The conference aims in part to overcome differences between al-Maliki's Shiite-led government and Sunni Arab nations, which are demanding that the Iraqi government ensure greater participation by Sunni Arabs in Iraq's political process.

Al-Maliki pledged to institute reforms to boost Sunni participation but said forgiving Iraq of its debts was the only way the country could rebuild.

"We call on all the friends and brothers participating in this conference to forgive Iraq all its debts in order to enable it to start the projects," he said.

Iraq made clear that it wants to see a meeting between Iran and the U.S. Iraq has offered to mediate between the two, an aide to al-Maliki told the Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions. The U.S accuses Iran of fueling Iraq's violence by arming and backing militants there, a charge the government in Tehran denies.

Rice has said she was willing to meet Iran's Manouchehr Mottaki, after years of accusations and name-calling between the nations. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had also expressed interest in such a meeting.

But their contacts Thursday were limited to brief exchange over lunch, when Mottaki entered the room with the Arabic greeting, "As-salama aleikum," or "Peace be upon you," according to an Iraqi official who was at the meeting.

Rice replied, "Hello," then added to Mottaki, "Your English is better than my Arabic," the official told AP, speaking on condition of anonymity to give details of the closed lunch.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.