Rice To Meet With Syria At Iraq Conference

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 will meet Syria's foreign minister Thursday in the first high-level talks between the two countries in years, CBS News has learned.

The main topic of discussion will be Syria's border with Iraq, reports CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar. The United States has long accused Syria of allowing foreign insurgents to enter Iraq through its borders.

However, a substantive meeting between the United States and Iran — another staunch U.S. Mideast foe — appeared less certain.

"We expect that there will be a discussion between Secretary of State Rice and the Syrian foreign minister about Iraqi security issues," said a senior State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was still being arranged.

Both the United States and Iran also had spoken favorably of a possible meeting, but the chances for that remained unclear, and neither side had commented publicly on any immediate arrangements.

As of now, though, no formal meeting between the U.S. and Iran is scheduled, instead, there will be a "drift by," which is a brief exchange of pleasantries, MacVicar reports.

The confirmation of the Syrian meeting came as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki opened the conference by calling on all countries to forgive his country's foreign debts.

But Saudi Arabia's foreign minister made no immediate public pledge — saying only that his country was in talks with Iraq and would consider such forgiveness.

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

But Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told the conference only that his country "has expressed its readiness to alleviate some of the debts on Iraq" and was currently in discussions with Iraqi officials on the issue.

Signs of new tension between Iraq and Saudi Arabia had emerged in the leadup to the conference when Saudi King Abdullah turning down a request to meet with al-Maliki. The United States said publicly at the time that it wished the Saudi king had met the Iraqi leader.

Al-Faisal, addressing the conference, also renewed his country's offer to provide Iraq with $1 billion in loans, on the condition that the money be distributed equally among "Iraq's geographical sectors." He insisted that more Sunni Arabs must be brought into Iraq's political process — the key dispute between Iraq and its neighbors.

In his speech opening the conference, al-Maliki pledged to institute reforms that the United States and Sunni Arab governments have repeatedly called for, including bringing more Sunni Arabs into the Iraqi political process.

Al-Maliki said forgiving Iraq of its debts was the only way the country could embark on much needed reconstruction projects.

"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.

Although a time had not been set for the meeting between Rice and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, a substantive meeting with her Iranian counterpart appeared doubtful.

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

The U.S. has put both regional heavyweight Iran and the less influential Syria in diplomatic deep freeze in recent years.

But the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, U.S. allies and lawmakers of both parties have urged President Bush to reconsider in the hope that Iran and Syria can be persuaded to use their influence inside Iraq.

Iraq and many Arab countries have been particularly eager, even desperate, for such talks — saying they are only the way to stabilize Iraq and lessen Iran's growing influence in the region.

The two-day conference in this Red Sea resort town brings together officials from Iraq, the U.S., Iran, Russia, China, Europe and Arab nations.

If Rice meets with Moallem, it would be 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.

The chief spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Iraq said Thursday that Syria had taken action to reduce the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.

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

The United States has not had relations with Iran since 1979.

In other developments:

  • U.S.-led forces conducting a crackdown on al Qaeda in Iraq killed a senior member of an insurgent group who was responsible for the high-profile kidnappings of several Westerners, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said. He said the killing of Muharib Abdul-Latif al-Jubouri, described as al Qaeda's information minister, had apparently led to confused reports that its top leader had been killed. Caldwell said the U.S. does not have the bodies of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, or Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, and doesn't know of "anybody that does."
  • Lawmakers divided over whether to keep U.S. troops in Iraq are finding common ground on at least one topic: They are furious that Iraqi politicians are considering a lengthy break this summer. "If they go off on vacation for two months while our troops fight — that would be the outrage of outrages," said Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn.
  • Nearly 4,000 American soldiers are pouring into Baghdad this week, the fourth of five brigades being sent to strengthen an 11-week-old crackdown aimed at quelling sectarian violence, the U.S. military said Wednesday.
  • The Democratic-controlled House failed Wednesday to override President Bush's veto of an Iraqi war spending bill with timetables for troop withdrawals. The 222-203 vote, far short of the two-thirds majority needed for a veto override, occurred just ahead of a White House meeting that Bush called to begin compromise talks with congressional leaders of both parties on new legislation to finance the war, now in its fifth year.
  • Four Filipino contractors working for the U.S. government were killed in a rocket attack on the heavily fortified Green Zone, the American Embassy said Thursday. It was the third straight day that the U.S.-controlled area in central Baghdad was hit by rockets or mortars, heightening concerns about security in the area that is home to the U.S. and British embassies and thousands of American troops.
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      Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.