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At Meeting on Iraq, Doubt and Detente

Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, repeated his government's call for the withdrawal of
Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, repeated his government's call for the withdrawal of "foreign occupying forces" from Iraq. (By Emilio Morenatti -- Associated Press)

The communique said a buildup of Iraqi defense forces will "pave the way for the conclusion of the mandate of the multi-national forces, whose presence will not be open-ended, and will terminate upon the request of and in accordance with timing to be agreed by the government of Iraq."

Rice said the reform agenda of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government "needs to be pursued urgently and it needs to be pursued to completion." A draft law to divide Iraq's oil revenue among regional groups is now available and it "should be passed . . . with dispatch," she said, along with revision of de-Baathification laws, a constitutional review, dismantling of militias and arrangements for provincial elections.

Rice's news conference was dominated by questions about her Thursday meeting with Moualem, and about Friday's encounter between Iranian officials and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and David M. Satterfield, Rice's chief coordinator for Iraq at the State Department. In the days leading up to the conference, the administration had decided to break the ice here with Syria and Iran in response to appeals from Maliki's government and critics at home.

Rice said she repeated to Moualem the U.S. concern about "foreign fighters," who are recruited by the group al-Qaeda in Iraq and pass through Syria, and asked for cooperation in stopping them. But she cautioned against reading too much into the meeting. "Let's take this one step at a time," she said. "I'm very glad we had the opportunity . . . but this was not about anything other than Iraq, and we will certainly see whether we can observe words being followed by deeds."

Crocker described the Friday morning meeting with Iran as a "pull-aside" on the margins of the conference. Reluctant to let the gathering pass without a face-to-face exchange between the United States and Iran, Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari arranged for the two U.S. officials and members of the Iranian delegation to literally bump into one another. Crocker later declined to characterize the conversation, which he said lasted about three minutes, but said it was limited to Iraq.

The Iranian foreign minister and Rice both attended a lunch hosted by Egypt on Thursday but had no direct exchange during a general conversation among foreign ministers.

The U.S. delegation anticipated a somewhat more direct exchange of pleasantries at a conference dinner Thursday night, but Mottaki showed up only briefly and then left before the meal was served. Iranian journalists later said he had been offended by the plunging neckline on the red dress of a Ukrainian violinist providing pre-dinner entertainment.

"Our officials can't look at things like this," said one Iranian reporter, noting that the Tehran government is in the midst of one of its periodic crackdowns on revealing female dress at home. Asked why he did not meet Rice, Mottaki said at a news conference, "There was no time, no appointment and no plans," the Reuters news service reported.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack cracked, "I'm not sure what woman he was afraid of, the one in the red dress or the secretary of state."

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