Rice, Syrian Official Discuss Porous Iraq Border

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem to press Syria to do more to keep foreign fighters out of Iraq. It was the first meeting between high-ranking U.S. and Syrian officials in two years.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep with Renee Montagne. It only lasted half an hour, but a meeting this week at an Egyptian resort signaled the change to an American policy that's lasted years. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with her counterpart from Syria. That meeting was just one part of an effort to involve Iraq's neighbors in cutting back on that country's violence.

You notice we didn't say bringing peace to Iraq; nobody's aiming that high. But some long-time adversaries as talking, as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON: Rice's 30-minute talk with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem marked a shift away from the Bush administration policy of conditioning direct talks with certain states on policy changes Washington is seeking. After the meeting, Moualem said he was serious about improving relations and asked Rice to return the U.S. ambassador to Damascus.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice steered the conversation back to preventing foreign fighters from crossing the Syrian border into Iraq, something the U.S. military says Damascus has been doing more of in recent weeks.

In contrast to the Syrian meeting, U.S. officials said Secretary Rice exchanged only pleasantries with her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, during lunch yesterday. A U.S. official said discussions at some level with Iran on Iraqi issues could take place in the future.

The general framework for today's meeting is that Iraq's primarily Shiite Arab leaders will try to convince their Sunni Arab neighbors that they are a national unity government and not a sectarian one. In return, it's hoped that the surrounding states will actively support efforts to reduce the attacks carried out by Sunni insurgents, largely in western Iraq and in Baghdad.

In remarks at the conference yesterday, Rice suggested that positive rhetoric, always in large supply at these gatherings, is no longer enough.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Department of State): We've all said at one time or another that a stable Iraq is in our best interest. Now it is time for every country to support this goal with new actions.

KENYON: Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, was more direct. He said the Iraqi government will conduct more aggressive outreach to the Sunni minority, but he also said Iraq is reaching out to the neighboring states with a blunt message of what could happen if this government falls.

Mr. MOUWAFAK AL-RUBAIE (Iraqi National Security Adviser): To reach out and tell them that, look, if you don't engage constructively and positively in Iraq, if you do not help the national unity government in controlling the violence and defeating al-Qaida and its affiliates, this violence will spill over across the borders. Because they don't understand borders, these people, so they better watch and they better hurry up in supporting Iraq.

KENYON: But other Iraqi officials had a different view, one that reflects the resentment of a newly empowered Shiite majority in Iraq at being told it has to accommodate the Sunnis in ways that were unimaginable when their roles were reversed.

Akram al-Hakim is Iraq's minister of state for national dialogue, arguably a critical position at the moment. When asked what the government plans to do for the marginalized Sunnis, he said that's a media exaggeration because half of Iraq's ministers are Sunnis. Hakim reached that conclusion by counting Iraq's Kurds and Sunni Arabs as a single group, ignoring their very different agendas. Hakim went on to say that, nonetheless, Sunnis now in opposition are welcome to support the government.

Mr. AKRAM AL-HAKIM (Iraqi Minister of State for National Dialogue): (Through Translator) We want to show them the door is open for them to participate, particularly the Islamic front and the dialogue front and others in parliament. And our message is this: Let's conduct dialogue without any preconditions for you to support the political process.

KENYON: Other Arab leaders say that's the same message Iraq's government has been sending for months, without much success. As the conferees ended their final day of talks, Iraqi officials said they were pleased at what's been promised and would head home with renewed optimism. But analysts and Arab officials here worry that political realities in the U.S. are starting to cast a shadow. They say with President Bush well into his second term and facing strong opposition on Iraq there's little incentive for Iraq's insurgents to suddenly begin cooperating with either the American-backed government in Baghdad or the Sunni neighbors.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Sharm el-Sheikh.

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Rice, Syrian Foreign Minister Discuss Iraq

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett. i

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice listens to a presentation at an international conference on Iraq. Khaled Dessouki/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Khaled Dessouki/AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett sit at an international conference on Iraq.

Khaled Dessouki/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held the first ministerial-level meeting with Syria in more than two years Thursday. Rice says she pressed Syria on securing its border with Iraq, while Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem urged that a U.S. ambassador return to Damascus.

Rice and Moualem are attending a conference on Iraq in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Rice also briefly exchanged words with Iran's top diplomat.

After the meeting with Rice, Moualem made brief comments to reporters, calling the talks constructive and transparent.

"We discussed two issues," Moualem said, "Iraq, security and stability in Iraq, and how to tackle our bilateral relations."

In the clearest signal yet that Syria is interested in repairing relations with the United States, Moualem raised the issue of the return of America's ambassador to his country.

Margaret Scobie was ordered back to Washington following an explosion in Beirut that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and more than 20 others. U.N. investigators have implicated Syrian officials in that blast, something Damascus denies.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that Rice made clear that future bilateral relations would depend on concrete signs that Syria was actively engaged in pacifying Iraq.

Whether coincidentally or not, in Baghdad Thursday, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell took note of improvements in the Syrian border situation.

"There has been a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq for more than a month," Caldwell said.

The new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, said that while that is good news, a single month is not a reliable trend.



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