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Today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held the first ministerial-level meeting with Syria in more than two years. Her meeting with Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, came on the sidelines of a conference on Iraq. The meeting is being held in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Rice says she pressed Syria on securing its border with Iraq, and the Syrian foreign minister says he asked Washington to send its ambassador back to Damascus.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Sharm el-Sheikh.
PETER KENYON: After the meeting with Rice, Moualem made brief comments to reporters, calling the talks constructive and transparent.
Mr. WALID AL-MOUALEM (Foreign Minister, Syria): We discussed two issues, Iraq, security and stability in Iraq, and how to tackle our bilateral relations. Thank you.
KENYON: In the clearest signal yet that Syria is interested in repairing relations with the U.S., Moualem raised the issue of the return of the American ambassador. Margaret Scobey was ordered back to Washington following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and more than 20 others in 2005. U.N. investigators have implicated Syrian officials in that blast, something Damascus denies.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed that Moualem raised the issue. He said Rice stirred the discussion back to Iraqi border security, indicating that future bilateral relations would depend on concrete signs that Syria was actively engaged in pacifying Iraq.
Whether coincidentally or not, in Baghdad today, Major General William Caldwell did note some improvements in the Syrian border situation, saying, quote, "There has been a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq for more than a month."
The new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who's in Egypt for this meeting said that's good if true, but a single month is not a reliable trend.
For many here, including some of Washington's most loyal allies, the meeting was long overdue. British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told reporters that Syria has been indicating for some time now that it believes it has a role to play in peace and security in the region. Beckett said, quote, "We wholeheartedly agree with that. And we would really like to see them playing it."
On Iran, perhaps the most important neighbor when it comes to Iraq's future, Beckett was more cautious, saying, quote, "There's every reason why there should be a constructive relationship with Iran. But that has to be a two-way street and I'm not sure that the Iranians fully realize that yet."
But having said that, Beckett then departed for her own bilateral meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. In contrast, the State Department said Rice said little more than hello in a brief exchange with Mottaki.
The side meetings overshadowed a day in which Iraq won endorsement of a five-year plan designed to speed foreign investment in Iraq and erase much of the country's staggering debt.
In return, Iraq's Shiite-led government promised new oil legislation and general political reform, especially reconciliation with the Sunni minority. Iraqi national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie emphasized that last point.
Mr. MOUWAFAK AL-RUBAIE (National Security Adviser, Iraq): We promised the international community that we are going to do much more and much more aggressive political inclusion, reaching out to those who are in opposition or who are feeling marginalized or disenfranchised in the last two or three years. And we are going to include them in the political process.
KENYON: Iraqi Human Rights Minister Wijdan Salim agreed that the government is working on reforms but, he said, it needs to work harder.
Ms. WIJDAN SALIM (Human Rights Minister, Iraq): In my opinion, I think that the Iraqi people, they will not wait more. They need the peace now. We are tired from the past regime and all the things that has happened now, so we need the peace now.
KENYON: But Salim and the other Baghdad residents at this conference know all too well that when it ends, they'll be going home to a city where bloodshed is a daily occurrence. Tomorrow, Iraq's neighbors and members of the U.N. Security Council gather here to discuss issues of peace and security. But no one is willing to predict when either will come to Baghdad.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Sharm el-Sheikh.
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