A Spat Over Iraq Revealed On Tape

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006

MOSCOW, June 29 -- The official State Department version is that "there was absolutely no friction whatsoever" between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting of foreign ministers in Moscow on Thursday.

But a recording of the ministers' private lunch, made when an audio link into the room was accidentally left on, showed that "Condi" and "Sergei" -- as they called each other -- had several long and testy exchanges over Iraq. The disputes concerned relatively minor wording changes in the five-page statement issued after the meeting, but grew out of basic differences between the two governments over how to proceed on Iraq.

The State Department's subsequent denial of tensions illustrates how officials manage the information that flows to the public from such closed-door meetings to create an image meant to advance foreign policy objectives. Reporters often have no independent account of such discussions.

At a time of rising tension in U.S.-Russian relations, the two diplomats sparred in sometimes tedious terms for more than 20 minutes over a handful of words in a document that is likely to be quickly forgotten. Other ministers jumped in to cool tempers by suggesting compromises.

During the meal -- the recording picks up the clinking of ice in glasses and the scratch of cutlery on plates -- Rice said she wanted to make a few "small points" about a draft statement prepared by lower-level officials. In particular, she said, she was seeking a stronger show of support for the nascent Iraqi government.

Lavrov demurred, suggesting the new leaders had not done enough to promote national reconciliation.

"I'm always a little bit sensitive about this on behalf of the Iraqis," Rice shot back. "Here we sit in Moscow or in Washington or in Paris telling them to make efforts on national accord when their brothers and sisters are being killed. I just think it's gratuitous."

Lavrov eventually gave ground, but then protested when Rice wanted to delete a sentence in a section regarding the killing of five Russian diplomats in Iraq.

"Urgent methods are being taken to provide security for diplomats," Rice said. The sentence "implies they are not being taken, and you know on a fairly daily basis we lose soldiers, and I think it would be offensive to suggest that these efforts are not being made."

Lavrov countered that the sentence was not intended to criticize but was "just a statement of fact, I believe."

"I don't believe security is fine in Iraq, and I don't believe in particular that security at foreign missions is okay," he said. He suggested shortening the sentence to emphasize "the need for improved security for diplomatic missions."

"Sergei, there is a need for improvement of security in Iraq, period," Rice said in a hard voice. "The problem isn't diplomatic missions. The problem is journalists and civilian contractors and, yes, diplomats as well."


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