SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki here yesterday that he needed to work harder to convince Iraq's Arab neighbors of his commitment to heal sectarian divides and ensure more participation by minority Sunnis.

At the same time she is redoubling her efforts to persuade Arab governments to be more understanding and supportive of Iraq.

On the eve of an international conference the Bush administration hopes will lead to increased financial and political backing from the region for Baghdad, Rice told Maliki in a 90-minute meeting that "progress has to take place as rapidly as possible" toward political reconciliation among Iraq's ethnic and religious groups, a senior administration official said.

For their part, the official said, Arab governments need to show more appreciation of the problems Maliki faces and the progress, however slow, he has made. Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, do not understand "what's really happening in Iraq," he said.

The official, who briefed reporters after attending the Rice-Maliki meeting, said that negative Arab views of Maliki's Shiite-dominated government were skewed by a fixation on the Sunni-Shiite divide, based on information from "interested parties" inside Iraq.

While the administration shares their concerns about Sunni minority rights and Shiite Iran's growing influence in Baghdad, the answer "is not exclusion, passivity and ostracization of Iraq" by its neighbors, he said.

The comments highlighted what has become a significant challenge for U.S. efforts to prop up the Maliki government as growing sectarian violence in Iraq deepens ethnic divides and suspicions throughout the Middle East.

Much of the attention surrounding the two-day gathering of nearly 60 governments has focused on whether Rice will meet with her counterparts from Syria and Iran, who are also attending. Rice said early yesterday that she "wouldn't rule out" a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem.

Washington has accused Syria of supporting foreign terrorist groups and allowing foreign fighters and suicide bombers to cross its border into Iraq.

A bilateral meeting with either Moualem or Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki would mark a sharp change in policy for the administration, which has accused Tehran of providing training and weapons shipments to Shiite militias in Iraq.