By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, May 3 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met here Thursday with her Syrian counterpart in the first high-level talks between the two governments in more than two years. Rice characterized the 30-minute session, held on the sidelines of a two-day international conference on Iraq at this Egyptian Red Sea resort, as "businesslike" and "very constructive."
Senior Bush administration officials said that she would not hold a widely anticipated meeting with Iran's foreign minister, but that the United States plans to hold direct talks with Tehran in the near future. Conversations will be limited, as were the talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, to the subject of Iraq, they added.
Officials said the decision to end the U.S. isolation of Syria and Iran -- which the administration accuses of facilitating insurgent and militia violence in Iraq -- was made in Washington in the days leading up to the conference. President Bush has long rejected calls from administration critics and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to begin talks.
Acknowledging a change in policy, officials characterized it as a response to direct appeals from the Iraqi government and emphasized that it should be seen in the context of the conference. "Everybody is here making a commitment" to help Iraq, said one official.
At Thursday's conference sessions, sponsored by the United Nations and the Baghdad government, foreign ministers and representatives from Iraq's neighbors, Europe and Asia pledged increased assistance and debt forgiveness.
Although the United States continues to play the lead role in supporting the Baghdad government, years of uphill efforts, worsening violence on the ground and pressure from Congress and the American public have increased the administration's eagerness to share some of the burden of a problem it calls a threat to world peace and an international responsibility.
Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert M. Kimmitt said he was gratified both by the attendance and the commitments made at the Thursday conference, including pledges to forgive roughly $32 billion of Iraq's remaining $56 billion debt from the Saddam Hussein era. In return, neighboring Arab states led by Saudi Arabia have demanded stepped-up political and security reforms and more equitable sharing of oil revenue among Iraq's ethnic and religious groups.
Administration officials said they expected discussions with Tehran would begin in the near future with direct dialogue between the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors in Baghdad and could expand to other levels.
Although Rice had publicly left open the possibility of a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki here, officials said the Iranian government had indirectly indicated to Washington in recent days that he was not the man, and this was not the place, to begin a new dialogue. Mottaki is not believed to be close to Iran's supreme religious leader or to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"If I have an opportunity to deliver a message or to reinforce the message that has been delivered here about the need to support Iraq, then obviously I'd take that opportunity," Rice said of Iran after the Thursday conference session. "But we haven't planned and have not asked for a bilateral meeting, nor have they asked us."
She and Mottaki exchanged pleasantries at a lunch for foreign ministers, State Department officials said.
Administration officials expected the two would do the same at a dinner hosted by Egypt. But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said after the dinner that Mottaki apparently left as Rice was arriving and that "she did not see the Iranian foreign minister."
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington on Thursday that the last U.S.-Iran "direct high-level meeting . . . that was substantive" was when President Jimmy Carter visited Iran in December 1977, before the revolution.
Mottaki made no public comment about Rice. In his speech to the conference session Thursday, he spoke of Iran's close "cultural and spiritual ties" to Iraq and recounted all the aid Tehran has given. Iran shared international concern about Iraq, he said, adding, "I regret to say that to this day events in Iraq have not helped to diminish apprehension and concerns over the future of Iraq and its innocent people. Quite the opposite."
The deteriorating security situation, he said, was "primarily caused by the flawed policies of the occupying powers, which overshadow efforts to deal with this and other issues."
Bush, Rice and others had repeatedly said there was no point in talking to Iran or Syria until they changed their behavior, not only in Iraq but in what the United States views as their support of terrorism in Lebanon and elsewhere.
The United States formally withdrew its ambassador to Syria and downgraded relations following the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri and allegations of Syrian involvement.
The subject of Lebanon did not come up during Rice's talks with Moualem, the Syrian foreign minister, administration officials said. "We talked . . . really only about Iraqi issues," Rice said of their 30-minute meeting. "The Syrians clearly say they believe that stability in Iraq is in their interest, but [their] actions will speak louder than words."
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, said here Thursday that initial reports indicated a decrease in the number of foreign fighters, including suicide bombers, crossing the Syrian border into Iraq during April. "But I think we have to wait and see whether the trend is indeed a trend."
"We don't want to have a difficult relationship with Syria," Rice said, "but there needs to be some basis for a better relationship, that there needs to be concrete steps that show that on the Iraqi issue, for instance, that there is actually going to be action. But it was back and forth. I didn't lecture him. He didn't lecture me. It was a quite professional meeting."
Although Rice left the session through a rear door in the conference center, Moualem exited the main door into a scrum of waiting reporters. They had a "constructive dialogue," he said in Arabic, following "a decision by the United States to cooperate with Syria. I hope that it will provide future opportunities to achieve security in Iraq."
The Iraqi government had pushed for U.S. meetings with both Syria and Iran. "Iraq needs them to reconcile," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Thursday morning outside the conference hall. "Iraq is not a place for settling scores," he said of the U.S.-Iran relationship. "It should be a platform for conciliation."
The White House last month criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for visiting Damascus and meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Asked why it was wrong for Pelosi but right for her to meet with the Syrians, Rice said, "I think there's a difference in going to Damascus and having broad-scale discussions about a whole range of issues with Syria, and that was the issue at the time.
"And I think having the secretary of state take an opportunity to speak to the foreign minister of Syria about a concrete problem involving Iraq, at an Iraqi neighbors conference, makes more sense."
Vice President Cheney, meanwhile, is to depart for the Middle East on Tuesday and visit the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.