Rice meets with Syrian foreign minister
SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Syria's foreign minister Thursday in the first high-level talks between the two countries in years.
The meeting came hours after the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq said Syria had moved to reduce "the flow of foreign fighters" across its border.
The Bush administration has shunned Syria, which it considers a state supporter of terrorism, and last month President Bush assailed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for making a trip to Damascus, saying it sent mixed messages to the Syrian government.
But the White House has been under pressure to talk with Syria and Iran, another U.S. opponent in the region.
Still, a substantive U.S.-Iran meeting appeared less certain. The Iraqi government is pressing for Rice and her Iranian counterpart to hold talks during the gathering, saying Washington's conflict with the government in Tehran is only fueling the instability in Iraq.
In Baghdad, U.S. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said Syria had tightened its borders and reduced the number of foreign insurgents crossing into Iraq -- a chief demand of the United States.
"There has been some movement by the Syrians. ... There has been a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq" for more than a month, Caldwell said.
Rice and Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Moallem met on the sidelines of Thursday's conference. Earlier, a senior State Department official said they would discuss "Iraqi security issues." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was still being arranged.
Both the United States and Iran had also spoken favorably of a possible meeting, but the chances for that remained unclear.
'Pleasantries' with Iran's foreign minister
Rice and the Iranian foreign minister "exchanged pleasantries" over lunch, the Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said. "They said hello, that's about it," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
Iraq and the United States hope Thursday and Friday's conference of nearly 50 nations at this Egyptian Red Sea resort will rally international support -- particularly from Arab nations -- for an ambitious plan to stabilize Iraq.
Iraq is pressing for forgiveness of debt and for Arabs to take greater action to prevent foreign fighters from joining the Iraqi insurgency. Arab countries, in turn, demand Iraq's government ensure greater participation by Sunni Arabs in the country's political process, echoing the United States.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki opened the conference by urging all countries to forgive his country's enormous foreign debts -- estimated at about $50 billion. Another $100 billion has already been written off by the Paris Club of lender nations. (Watch what has paralyzed Iraq's government)
But Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, told the conference only that his country "has expressed its readiness to alleviate some of the debts on Iraq" and was currently in discussions with Iraqi officials to deal with the issue "in line with the regulations and bases of the Paris Club."
Iraqi and U.S. officials had said Saudi Arabia privately had already committed to forgiving 80 percent of Iraq's $17 billion debt.
Al-Faisal, addressing the conference, renewed a Saudi offer of $1 billion in loans to Iraq, on the condition that the money be distributed equally among "Iraq's geographical sectors."
Al-Maliki pledged to institute reforms to boost Sunni participation but said forgiving Iraq's debts was the only way the country could rebuild.
Rice's meeting with 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.
Iraq and many Arab countries have been particularly eager, even desperate, for such talks between the United States and its Mideast opponents -- saying they are only the way to stabilize Iraq and lessen Iran's growing influence in the region.
U.S. has accused Iran of fueling Iraq's violence
Rice also has said she was willing to meet Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki after years of accusations and name-calling between the nations. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had also expressed interest in such a meeting. (Watch what Rice hopes to accomplish)
During Thursday's session, the two sat on far ends of the large conference hall where the ministers and top diplomats from nearly 50 nations gathered. They both attended a lunch along with the other foreign ministers.
"All of us here today are bound to the future of Iraq. What happens in Iraq has profound consequences which will affect each and every one of us," Rice said in a speech to the conference.
In his speech, Mottaki blamed Iraq's turmoil on "the flawed policies of the occupying powers" -- referring to the United States.
Iraq has offered to mediate between Iran and the U.S., an aide to al-Maliki told the Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
Al-Maliki told Rice on Wednesday that "a rapprochement must take place between you and the nations of the region to solve the issue of Iraq, particularly Syria and Iran," according to Iraqi Planning Minister Ali Baban, a Sunni.
The United States accuses Iran of fueling Iraq's violence by arming and backing militants there, a charge Iran denies.
The two-day conference brings together officials from Iraq, the United States, Iran, Russia, China, Europe and Arab nations.