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Rice holds landmark talks with Syria

Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt), May 3 (Reuters): US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice called on Syria at a rare high-level, face-to-face meeting today to stop foreign fighters from entering Iraq.

Rice told reporters after about 30 minutes of talks with Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem in Egypt that action by Damascus could help efforts to stabilise Iraq.

“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,” she said.

Washington has accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to enter Iraq through the long border between the two countries and is pressing for an international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

The meeting between Rice and Moualem marked a change in the policy of President George W. Bush’s administration, which stopped high-level contacts with Syria on the grounds that Damascus had not complied with US demands.

Rice said the talks on the sidelines of an international conference about Iraq in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh were “professional and business-like”. Moualem described the talks as “frank and constructive”.

“I didn’t lecture him, he didn’t lecture me,” said Rice.

“We don’t want to have a difficult relationship with Syria, but there needs to be some basis for a better relationship — concrete steps that show on the Iraq issue that there will actually be action,” she said.

The US and Syria have a long list of disagreements and have supported opposing sides in Lebanon, which is divided over the country’s geopolitical alignment. The US calls Syria a state sponsor of terrorism because of its relationship with the Hezbollah group in Lebanon and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.

Iran pleasantries

On the Iranian front, Rice and Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki briefly exchanged pleasantries during lunch but did not discuss politics, a US spokesman said without clarifying whether any further contacts could take place.

“They said hello. It was not about substance,” said US state department spokesman Sean McCormack.

A US official who asked not to be named has said any encounters between Rice and Mottaki would not tackle substance, in accordance with the wishes of the Iranian side.

Iran and the US have not had relations since soon after the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, and tensions have risen in the past year over Iran’s influence in Iraq and over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

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