Rice Meets With Syrian Foreign Minister

By Karen DeYoung and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 3, 2007; 3:36 PM

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, May 3 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held talks Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, the first such high-level contact in more than two years between the Bush administration and a government it has denounced as a state sponsor of terrorism.

"We talked about Iraq and bilateral relations," Moallem said as he was mobbed by reporters after the 30-minute meeting on the sidelines of an international conference on Iraq at this Red Sea resort.

U.S. officials did not immediately provide details of the meeting, which took place in a side room off the main conference hall. But a U.S. official said before the talks that Rice mainly wanted to discuss security on the border between Syria and Iraq. The United States has accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters, including adherents of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, to flow across the border into Iraq, where they have carried out suicide bombings and other attacks against U.S. and Iraqi targets, including civilians.

In Baghdad Thursday, the chief U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, told reporters that Syria has tightened its border in recent weeks. "There has been some movement by the Syrians," he said. "There has been a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq" for more than a month.

According to the Syrian Arab News Agency, the official mouthpiece of the Damascus government, Rice and Moallem met "in the presence of members of the Syrian and U.S. delegations." It said the talks "dealt with the situation in Iraq and the necessity of achieving stability and security" there. The two sides also "reviewed the bilateral relations between Syria and U.S.A. and the importance of developing them to serve peace, security and stability in the region," the news agency said.

The meeting took place a month after the Bush administration sharply criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for leading a congressional delegation to Damascus and holding talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. President Bush denounced the visit, calling it "counterproductive" and saying it sent mixed signals to a government that his administration has been trying to isolate.

In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Snow sought to play down the meeting between Rice and Moallem, calling it a "sidebar conversation," rather than formal bilateral talks. "That was a pull-aside conversation," he said, "about the subject of the conference itself."

Snow told reporters, "You ought to expect the fact that when you are at a conference and the topic is how to help Iraq, you will have conversations about how to help Iraq with all the people who are at that conference." He added, "The one and only topic . . . . in Sharm el-Sheikh is to say it is time now to step forward and support the government of Iraq. . . . And for those who are undermining, they need to stop and they need to begin to support the democratically elected government of Iraq. And it really goes no further than that."

Similarly, Snow said, any conversations between Rice and Iranian officials at the conference "would not be bilateral discussions; they would not be formal negotiations."

Separately, the White House announced Thursday that Vice President Cheney will leave May 8 on a trip to the Middle East, visiting the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to discuss "key issues of mutual interest" with the leaders of those countries. He will also meet with U.S. military commanders "and speak with U.S. troops stationed in the Persian Gulf region," a White House statement said.

The Bush administration downgraded relations with Syria two years ago in view of the Damascus government's alleged complicity in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut in February 2005. In addition to its complaints about the use of Syrian territory by foreign fighters bound for Iraq, Washington also has objected to Syrian support for the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah, which fought a cross-border war with Israel last summer.

Before Thursday's conference, the Lebanese government had sought assurances from the United States that it would not discuss Lebanon in any bilateral meeting with Syria, because it wanted a Lebanese representative to be present for such talks.

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