Rice, Syrian diplomat meet at Iraq summit

Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt — Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met yesterday with Syria's foreign minister at a summit here, the first formal encounter between the two countries' top diplomats in more than three years.

Neither side claimed a major breakthrough, but U.S. officials suggested that other meetings with Syria could follow, an indication that the Bush administration might be shifting its policy of trying to isolate a Damascus regime that it considers a sponsor of terrorism.


Rice did not meet with Iran's foreign minister, who also was present for an international conference on Iraq.

"We haven't planned and have not asked for a bilateral meeting, nor have they asked us," said Rice, who described the meeting with her Syrian counterpart as "professional" and "businesslike."


The meeting came nearly a month after the Bush administration chastised House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, for visiting Syria and meeting with President Bashar Assad.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, traveling with Rice, said the secretary had called Pelosi to discuss the conference and the speaker's trip. He said Rice defended the Bush administration's criticism of Pelosi. McCormack said there was a difference between the speaker talking to Assad about a broad range of issues and Rice meeting with her counterpart to say: "Your actions need to follow your words."

Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and was part of the delegation that accompanied Pelosi to Syria, said Rice's meeting yesterday undermined the Bush administration's criticism of the speaker.

"This is a marked improvement to the administration's ostrich policy approach and a tacit admission of how wrong it was last month in criticizing the speaker of the House and congressional colleagues, including myself, for going to Damascus," Lantos said.

Delegates from 60 countries are in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik to discuss how to halt the violence in Iraq and to announce what is expected to be billions of dollars in aid and debt relief for Iraq.

Relations between the United States and Syria have been tense for years. U.S. officials have accused the Syrians of allowing foreign fighters to enter Iraq through their territory and have suggested Syrian involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Officials in Damascus have strongly denied both charges. The Bush administration also has accused Syria of backing Lebanon's Hezbollah, and Hamas, in the Palestinian territories, which the State Department lists as terrorist organizations.

Despite that list of issues, Rice insisted that she had discussed only matters related to Iraq.

"I didn't lecture him; he didn't lecture me," Rice told reporters. "The Syrians clearly say that stability in Iraq is in their interest, but actions will speak louder than words and we will have to see how this develops."


Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem told reporters that the two had discussed "bilateral relations" in addition to Iraq. They discussed the necessity of developing U.S.-Syrian ties "in a way that serves the achievement of peace, security and stability in the region," according to Syria's official news agency, SANA.

U.S. officials said the Bush administration might send representatives to take part in low-level talks on border issues between Iraq and Syria.

"We're just going to take it as it goes and see what options present themselves," said Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Louise Roug and Paul Richter write for the Los Angeles Times.