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Rice Meets with Syrian Foreign Minister


U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has met with her Syrian counterpart, Walid Moallem, on the sidelines of the Iraq stabilization conference in Egypt. It would be the first high-level diplomatic meeting between the two nations in several years. But at the same conference, officials are saying it is unlikely that Rice will hold any substantive talks with the Iranian foreign minister. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Sharm el-Sheikh, where the conference is taking place.

The meeting between Rice and Moallem lasted about half an hour. Afterward, the Syrian foreign minister called it "frank and constructive."

"As I said, we discussed the situation in Iraq, how to achieve stability and security in Iraq, and we discussed also the bilateral relations between Syria and the United States," he said.

He said they did not discuss Lebanon, an issue that has been a wedge between the two states since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri two years ago.

Rice called the meeting professional and businesslike, and said the two "did not lecture" each other.

She said she raised the issue of foreign fighters entering Iraq through Syria, which has been a longstanding U.S. complaint. Before the meeting, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said the Syrians had recently taken action on the issue, and there had been a reduction in the number of foreign fighters crossing the border in the last month.

Meanwhile, U.S. and Iranian officials have downplayed the likelihood of substantive talks between Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki, who exchanged pleasantries over lunch, but are unlikely to hold a formal meeting. Senior diplomats from Arab and Western countries say they have been encouraging the two to talk. A U.S. official said they might meet in passing, but they would not discuss concrete issues.

Iran and the United States are key allies of the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but Tehran and Washington have not had diplomatic relations with each other since 1980, and high-level meetings between the two governments are exceedingly rare.

Earlier optimism that Rice and Mottaki might meet on the sidelines was fading as the conference got under way. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said it was important just to get the two into the same room.

"I'm not going to get into details," he said. "I think the very fact that all the regional actors and all the international players are gathered here to discuss the future of Iraq and to help Iraq achieve its own vision for political stability and economic prosperity is a very important signal."

At the opening session of the meeting, Rice and Mottaki sat in opposite corners of the massive conference hall. In their addresses to the assembly, neither addressed the other directly, but they did make some of the same points, underscoring the fact that despite their differences, Iraq's security is of serious concern to both.

Rice said a stable Iraq is in everyone's interest.

"All of us here today are bound to the future of Iraq," she said. "What happens in Iraq has profound consequences which will affect each and every one of us, the nation of Iraq, its regional neighbors and indeed the entire international community. "

As neighbors, Mottaki said, Iran and Iraq have longstanding religious, historical and cultural ties. He said Iran's security is linked to Iraq's, and the international community must support Iraq's efforts to stabilize.

"Under the current circumstances in Iraq, the best way that we can assist the government and people of Iraq is to help them establish security, stability and national solidarity, and to prevent actions that will lead to further escalation of sectarian violence and internal dissension," he said.

Both the United States and Iran have expressed concern about sectarian violence in Iraq, but each country considers the other to be a destabilizing force helping to widen, not close, the sectarian divide.

Mottaki said Iraq's security problems are largely caused by, in his words, "the flawed policies of the occupying powers."

The U.S. military says it is finding evidence that weapons are being smuggled to Iraqi Shi'ite insurgents from Iran.

The two nations are also at odds over a host of other issues, including Iran's nuclear program and support for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

But the growing instability in Iraq has driven them to consider talks on Iraqi security issues, if nothing else. Iraqi leaders, with close ties to both countries, have been pushing Tehran and Washington to set aside their differences and deal with each other.

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett had her own meeting with Mottaki on the sidelines of the conference. It was the first time the two have met face-to-face, and the first high-level diplomatic talks between the two countries since the crisis over 15 British naval personnel taken prisoner by Iran in late March.

Before the meeting, Beckett said, "There is every reason why there should be a constructive relationship with Iran, but that has to be a two-way street." She said she is "not sure the Iranians at the moment fully realize that."

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