A Spat Over Iraq Revealed On Tape
Rice and Russian Caught Bickering At Private Lunch

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."

She continued: "The problem is you have a terrorist insurgent population that is wreaking havoc on a hapless Iraqi civilian population that is trying to fight back. The implication that by somehow declaring that diplomats need to be protected, it will get better, I think, is simply not right."

Lavrov began to respond, but Rice cut him off.

"I understand that in the wake of the brutal murder of your diplomats, that it is a sensitive time," she said. "But I think that we can't imply that this is an isolated problem or that it isn't being addressed."

Other ministers jumped in and suggested compromise language to calm tempers: "The tragic event underscores the importance of improving security for all in Iraq."

Then Rice said she wanted to seek an endorsement of an Iraqi proposal for an "international compact" in which the Baghdad government would have to meet certain broad goals in order to collect aid, similar to a package for Afghanistan. But Lavrov refused, saying the concept was too new and needed more development and support from other countries. He suggested the creation of a forum of neighboring governments to oversee reconciliation in Iraq.

Rice said she worried he was suggesting greater international involvement in Iraq's affairs.

"I did not suggest this," Lavrov said. "What I did say was not involvement in the political process but the involvement of the international community in support of the political process."

"What does that mean?" Rice asked.

There was a long pause. "I think you understand," he said.

"No, I don't," Rice said.

Lavrov tried to explain, but Rice said she was disappointed. "I just want to register that I think it's a pity that we can't endorse something that's been endorsed by the Iraqis and the U.N.," she said, adding tartly: "But if that's how Russia sees it, that's fine."

The two continued to squabble when Lavrov threw out a new concept -- that the new Iraqi government had to answer questions about former president Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction because last week Republican lawmakers in the United States had said there was evidence of chemical munitions.

"I think it's serious," he said. "While we want to support this government, we also believe that this government has something to do to finalize the leftovers of the past, which is basically nonproliferation concerns."

This line of conversation riled Rice, but once again other ministers suggested a compromise that mentioned the idea without endorsing it.

The Lavrov-Rice sparring continued at a subsequent news conference over issues such as Russia's growing control of natural gas supplies in Europe and threats to democratic institutions in Russia.

Reporters traveling with Rice transcribed the tape of the private luncheon but did not tell Rice aides about it until after a senior State Department official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity as usual, assured them that "there was absolutely no friction whatsoever" between the two senior diplomats.

Once the flabbergasted official learned of the tape, he continued the briefing. He paused repeatedly, asking before describing a discussion whether reporters had heard it.

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