- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her first meeting with her Syrian counterpart, yesterday offered Damascus the prospect of a better relationship with Washington if it helps stabilize neighboring Iraq.

Miss Rice, who refused to engage with the Syrians for more than two years, did not rule out sending a U.S. ambassador to Damascus. No U.S. ambassador has been there since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“I want to be clear that we don’t want to have a difficult relationship with Syria,” the secretary said she told Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem. “But there needs to be some basis for a better relationship. There need to be concrete steps that show on the Iraqi issue, for instance, that there is actually going to be action.”

In Baghdad, the U.S. military confirmed a report in The Washington Times yesterday saying Syria had tightened its border with Iraq. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said there had been “a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq” from Syria over the past month.

Miss Rice said it remained to be seen whether that becomes a trend. She added that the Syrians should help stabilize Iraq not as “a favor to the United States.”

“The Syrians clearly say that they believe that stability in Iraq is in their interest, but actions will speak louder than words,” she told reporters after the half-hour meeting with Mr. Moallem, which she described as professional and businesslike.

“It was back and forth,” she said of the session on the sidelines of an international conference on Iraq in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik. “I didn’t lecture him and he didn’t lecture me.”

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Miss Rice called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, before leaving Washington earlier in the week to discuss Syria. Mrs. Pelosi paid a visit to Damascus last month, for which she was sharply criticized by the White House.

The administration’s concern was over Mrs. Pelosi’s “going to Damascus and having broad-scale discussions about a whole range of issues with Syria,” Miss Rice said yesterday.

By contrast, she said, “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.”

In Damascus yesterday, Mr. Moallem’s deputy, Faysal Mekdad, told The Times that his government was willing to discuss bilateral concerns with Washington, but refused to be lectured, ordered or instructed to do anything regarding any neighbor, particularly Israel.

“We have always been calling for a dialogue; that is the only way to find solutions,” he said.

Mr. McCormack said Mr. Moallem had asked Miss Rice to send an ambassador back to Damascus. She did not reject the idea but was noncommittal, saying only that the Syrians should focus on stabilizing Iraq.

Yesterday’s meeting, the highest-level contact since Mr. Hariri’s death, took place away from reporters and cameras, at Miss Rice’s insistence, Arab diplomats said. She stayed in a room where she had just met with South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit escorted Mr. Moallem into the room.

The Egyptians also offered to arrange a meeting with Miss Rice for Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, but he declined, said diplomats who witnessed the exchanges. Miss Rice had said she was ready for such a meeting.

The two did exchange greetings during a luncheon organized by the conference’s hosts, Mr. McCormack and Mr. Gheit said. It was not clear whether Mr. Mottaki, who missed the official dinner, would agree to a meeting today, when a session with Iraq’s neighbors, the United States and other powers will take place.

At the first meeting of the so-called International Compact for Iraq yesterday, donor countries pledged more than $30 billion to Iraq in debt forgiveness and other aid, said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Iraqi Finance Minister Bayan Jabor said Iraq had rejected as unacceptable an offer from Russia to forgive the debt it was owed by Baghdad in return for access to a major Iraqi oil field.

Betsy Pisik in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this article.

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