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Rice raises issue of porous borders with Iraq in meeting with Syrian counterpart

Rice raises issue of porous borders with Iraq in meeting with Syrian counterpart

In a highly anticipated meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Syria's foreign minister of U.S. concerns about his country's porous border with Iraq on Thursday _ the two nations' first Cabinet-level talks in years.
"I didn't lecture him and he didn't lecture me," Rice said afterward.
Prospects dimmed for a more dramatic face-to-face discussion between Rice and Iran's foreign minister.
"We haven't planned and have not asked for a bilateral meeting, nor have they asked us," she said.
The 30-minute session with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem marks a diplomatic turning point for the Bush administration, which had resisted talks with Syria and Iran despite the recommendations of allies abroad and the Iraq Study Group and lawmakers from both parties at home.
"It's a start," Moallem said afterward.
The carefully orchestrated meeting overshadowed the modest initial accomplishments here from a 50-nation gathering devoted to improving Iraq's security and financial bottom line. Iraq's embattled prime minister was among those leaning on the Bush administration to engage Syria and Iran, arguing that those neighboring nations could help lessen violence in Iraq.
Until now, Rice and U.S. President George W. Bush had said Syria well knew what it could do to help Iraq _ namely tighten its border _ and didn't need the U.S. to point it out. The United States claims that Syria looks the other way while fighters from many countries cross its border to join the ranks of al-Qaida and other insurgent or terror groups in Iraq.
Ahead of the meeting, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said Syria had somewhat stemmed the flow of foreign fighters. "There has been some movement by the Syrians," said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell. "There has been a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq" for more than a month.
The Bush administration also has said it worries that Syria will use any contact with the United States as leverage in a dispute over alleged Syrian meddling in fragile Lebanon. Rice said that subject did not come up Thursday.
Rice's meeting with Moallem marked the first such high-level talks since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The United States yanked its ambassador from Damascus in protest, and has given a cold shoulder to the Syrian government since. Syria denies it had anything to do with the killing.
Moallem asked Rice to return an ambassador, but she made no promises.
Rice said the talks were limited to Iraqi security. "I made clear we don't want to have a difficult relationship with Syria, but we need to have some basis for a better relationship."
Only last month the White House blistered House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a diplomatic trip to Damascus, and administration officials suggested afterward that Syrian President Bashar Assad had played the California Democrat for a fool.
"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," Rice said Thursday. "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."
Rice called Pelosi ahead of this week's trip to Egypt, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Rice and Moallem have no specific plans to meet again, although lower-level diplomats from both countries will continue to discuss ways to improve security in Iraq, diplomats said.
"We are serious and we expect the United States to show the same seriousness," Moallem said. "We agreed to continue dialogue."
The Iraqi government is pressing for talks between Rice and Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, saying Washington's conflict with the government in Tehran is fueling instability in Iraq.
Rice and the Iranian "said hello, that's about it," at a luncheon Thursday, McCormack said.
They missed one another entirely at dinner.
Although Rice had seemed to invite a broader engagement with Iran ahead of the Iraq meeting, the tone changed in recent days. U.S. officials played down the chances for any substantive exchange, and some said they would wait for clearer signals from the Iranians that they were ready to talk.
The United States cut diplomatic relations with Iran shortly after the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Bush administration labeled Iran part of an "axis of evil," and Iranian leaders still refer to the United States as the Great Satan.
The United States pressed hard in the weeks before the conference to get Arab countries' participation and urge 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.
The conference aims in part to overcome differences between al-Maliki's Shiite-led government and Sunni Arab nations, which are demanding that the Iraqi government ensure greater participation by Sunni Arabs in Iraq's political process.
Al-Maliki pledged to institute reforms to boost Sunni participation but said forgiving Iraq its debts was the only way the country could rebuild.
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Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Edith M. Lederer in Sharm el-Sheik and Salah Nasrawi in Cairo contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-10-19 19:21 GMT+08:00