- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expects to have a “substantive” meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem today or tomorrow, reversing a more than two-year-old policy not to talk with Damascus at a high level, U.S. officials said yesterday.

The officials, traveling with Miss Rice to this Egyptian Red Sea resort for an international conference on Iraq, also offered unusual praise for the Syrians for taking “positive” steps to guard their border with Iraq. The border has been a popular route for foreign fighters seeking to enter Iraq.

Miss Rice also may meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, diplomats here said. The secretary said she is willing to participate in such a meeting, but Tehran had not decided.

“There is a good possibility for a substantive discussion on Iraq” when Miss Rice meets with Mr. Muallem on the sidelines of the Sharm el Sheik forum, a senior State Department official said.

Mr. Muallem told The Washington Times in Damascus last week that he would “gladly” meet with Miss Rice at the Iraq conference.

Syrian and Iraqi officials also said they expected to see a Rice-Muallem meeting — the first since Miss Rice took office more than two years ago. Some suggested the talks also would address instability in Lebanon, but the senior State Department official insisted they would focus only on Iraq.

“There will be an Iranian-American or Syrian-American meeting, and all the parties have expressed their enthusiasm for these meetings,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters.

But Mr. Mottaki said in Tehran that a meeting with Miss Rice is still “under review” and that “no final decision has been made.”

Since she became secretary, Miss Rice has refused to meet with either her Iranian or Syrian counterpart, demanding that their countries change their behavior first. Direct talks with Syria by her predecessor, Colin L. Powell, were futile, she has said.

Washington wants Damascus to do more to prevent foreign fighters from crossing the border into Iraq and to “stop meddling” in Lebanon.

The senior State Department official said the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was reporting “some positive signs” regarding the Syrian border issue. He declined to be more specific, but the Bush administration has been pressing Syria to do a better job of patrolling its border with Iraq.

In Iran’s case, the Bush administration accuses it of destabilizing Iraq by aiding the insurgency and sending weapons. It also says Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian program.

Miss Rice told reporters on her way to Sharm el Sheik that she was not unwilling to talk with Mr. Mottaki about nuclear and other issues, as well as about Iraq.

“If we encounter each other and wander into other subjects, I’m prepared to at least address them in terms of American policy,” she said.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt, who is accompanying Miss Rice as the chief U.S. envoy to the so-called International Compact with Iraq, said he expects other countries to pledge billions of dollars in debt relief and other aid for Iraq.

“The idea essentially is that Iraq lays out in the compact its economic-reform plan with the goal of reaching financial independence and economic self-sufficiency within five years, and in return, the international community pledges new support either in the form of economic or technical assistance or debt relief,” Mr. Kimmitt said.

More than 60 countries are expected to attend the first compact meeting today. Security and political issues will be addressed tomorrow at a smaller gathering of Iraq’s neighbors, the United States and other world powers.

Arab states have been reluctant to offer substantial financial or diplomatic help to Iraq, largely because Sunni-led states dislike or distrust the U.S.-backed, Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad. Miss Rice urged them to reconsider their positions.

“The region has everything at stake here,” she said. “Iraq’s neighbors have everything at stake here.”

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