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Iraq security drives US-Syria talks

Secretary of State Rice met in Egypt Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister Moalem, who called their discussion 'frank and constructive.'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 4, 2007

Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt

In a move signaling a significant change in US policy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Thursday with her Syrian counterpart on the margins of an international meeting about Iraq.

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Though largely limited to a statement of US concerns about Syrian action with impact on Iraq, the meeting opens the door to further contact and signals a new Bush administration willingness to engage even its diplomatic foes to improve conditions in Iraq.

Dr. Rice came to a two-day gathering of Iraq's neighbors hinting at her willingness to meet with Iranian officials, who are seen as perhaps the most important outside influence on Iraq. But as the meeting opened Thursday, US officials were playing down prospects for that meeting and talking up the likelihood – and utility – of a meeting with the Syrians.

Rice's meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moalem focused on security issues, specifically, US concerns over the destabilizing influence of a porous Syrian border with Iraq, according to State Department officials.

Mr. Moalem told reporters that the meeting was "frank and constructive" and indicated that it was limited to Iraq. At the same time, US military officials in Baghdad said at a press conference that they were seeing indications of greater Syrian effort to control its border with Iraq.

Rice's meeting with Moalem reflects the administration's decision to step up diplomacy – while not making that the focus of its Iraq policy, say some Middle East analysts.

"They see this as the complement to their centerpiece, which is the surge" in US troops in Baghdad, says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Mideast Policy. The administration's thinking has evolved to where "diplomacy is a useful adjunct," he says.

For others, however, the decision to meet is still a distasteful step – though one born of necessity – for an administration that has showcased its refusal of dialogue with what it has called "evildoers."

Asked about the significance of the contact, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih put it in the context of what he sees as growing cooperation to help his country. "What we're seeing is that the stability and prosperity of Iraq can be a point of unity for the international community," he said. That is happening, he added, because of a growing consensus that "the challenges of terrorism and extremism and instability affect all of us," not just Iraq.

No high-level contact since 2005

The US had rebuffed any high-level contact with the Syrians since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a Beirut car bombing. The US has sought to ostracize Syria over what it says was a Syrian hand in the assassination – a claim backed up by a UN inquiry – though Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied his country's involvement.

Just last month, the White House harshly rebuked House Leader Nancy Pelosi for meeting with Mr. Assad during a Middle East tour. That followed the administration's cool reception of the Iraq Study Group's December report, which concluded that the US should embark on a robust diplomatic initiative, including Iran and Syria, to address Iraq's deteriorating political, economic, and social conditions.