- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

2:27 p.m.

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she raised the issue of foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria in talks with Syria’s foreign minister today but “didn’t lecture him” in the first high-level meeting in years between the two countries.

Miss Rice described as “professional” and “businesslike” her half-hour meeting with Syria’s Walid Moallem on the sidelines of a major regional conference on Iraq.

Ahead of the meeting, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said Syria had stemmed the flow of foreign fighters across its border — a chief U.S. demand. “There has been some movement by the Syrians,” said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV. “There has been a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq” for more than a month.

The Bush administration has shunned Syria — accusing it of fueling tensions in Iraq and Lebanon — and assailed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her visit last month to Damascus. However, the White House has been under pressure to talk with Syria and Iran, the chief U.S. opponents in the Middle East.

“There was an opportunity to talk about the problem of foreign fighters — a major source of the suicide bombings. I thought it was a good opportunity to talk to the foreign minister about it,” Miss Rice said after the meeting.

“I didn’t lecture him, and he didn’t lecture me,” she added.

Mr. Moallem called the exchange “frank and constructive.”

“We discussed the situation in Iraq and how to achieve stability,” he told reporters.

Miss Rice said she was not seeking a similar meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

The Iraqi government is pressing for direct talks between Miss Rice and Mr. Mottaki, saying Washington’s conflict with the government in Tehran is fueling instability in Iraq.

Miss Rice and the Iranian “said hello; that’s about it,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, although both American and Iranian officials earlier had spoken favorably of a possible meeting.

Miss Rice’s meeting with Mr. Moallem marked the first such high-level talks since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria denies it had anything to do with the killing, but U.S. and European officials have since shunned the Damascus government.

Syria’s official news agency SANA said the two ministers discussed “the situation in Iraq and the need to achieve security and stability in that country.” They also discussed the need to develop U.S.-Syrian ties “in a way that serves the achievement of peace, security and stability in the region.”

Baghdad and the United States hope the conference today and tomorrow of nearly 50 nations at this Egyptian Red Sea resort will rally strong international support — particularly from Arab nations — for an ambitious plan to stabilize Iraq.

The United States pressed hard in the weeks before the conference to get Arab countries’ participation and urged them to forgive Iraq’s billions of dollars of debt — and it was with that request that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki opened the conference.

However, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal made no immediate public pledge, telling the conference only that his country “has expressed its readiness to alleviate some of the debts on Iraq.”

Iraqi and U.S. officials had said Saudi Arabia already had committed privately to forgiving about 80 percent of Iraq’s $17 billion bilateral debt.

The conference aims in part to overcome differences between Mr. al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government and Sunni Arab nations, which are demanding that the Iraqi government ensure greater participation by Sunni Arabs in Iraq’s political process.

Mr. Al-Maliki pledged to institute reforms to boost Sunni participation but said forgiving Iraq of its debts was the only way the country could rebuild.

“We call on all the friends and brothers participating in this conference to forgive Iraq all its debts in order to enable it to start the projects,” he said.

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