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Rice reopens U.S. dialogue with Damascus

Talks with Syria's foreign minister resumed contact long stalled. Limited talks with Iran are possible.

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met yesterday with her Syrian counterpart in the first high-level talks between the two governments in more than two years. Rice called the 30-minute session, held on the sidelines of a two-day international conference on Iraq at this Red Sea resort, "businesslike" and "very constructive."

Senior Bush administration officials said that Rice would not hold a widely anticipated meeting with Iran's foreign minister but that the United States planned to hold direct talks with Tehran soon. Conversations will be limited, as were the talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, to Iraq, they added.

Officials said the decision to end the U.S. isolation of Syria and Iran - which the administration accuses of facilitating insurgent and militia violence in Iraq - was made in Washington in the days leading up to the conference. Bush has long rejected calls from administration critics and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to begin talks.

Officials characterized the change in policy as a response to direct appeals from the Iraqi government and stressed that it should be seen in the context of the conference. "Everybody is here making a commitment" to help Iraq, one official said.

At yesterday's conference sessions, sponsored by the United Nations and the Baghdad government, foreign ministers and representatives from Iraq's neighbors, Europe and Asia pledged increased assistance and debt forgiveness.

Although the United States still plays the lead role in supporting Baghdad's government, years of uphill efforts, worsening violence, and pressure from Congress and the American public have increased the administration's eagerness to share some of the burden of a problem it calls a threat to world peace and an international responsibility.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt said he was gratified by the attendance and commitments made at yesterday's conference, including pledges to forgive roughly $32 billion of Iraq's remaining $56 billion debt from the Saddam Hussein era. In return, neighboring Arab states led by Saudi Arabia have demanded stepped-up political and security reforms and more equitable sharing of oil revenue among Iraq's ethnic and religious groups.

Administration officials said they expected discussions with Tehran would begin soon with direct dialogue between the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors in Baghdad and could expand to other levels.

Although Rice had publicly left open the possibility of a meeting here with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, officials said Iran's government had indirectly indicated to Washington in recent days that he was not the man, and this was not the place, to begin a new dialogue. Mottaki is not believed to be close to Iran's supreme religious leader or to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"If I have an opportunity to deliver a message or to reinforce the message that has been delivered here about the need to support Iraq, then obviously I'd take that opportunity," Rice said of Iran. "But we haven't planned and have not asked for a bilateral meeting, nor have they asked us."

She and Mottaki exchanged pleasantries at a lunch for foreign ministers, State Department officials said.

Mottaki made no public comment about Rice. In his speech to the conference session, he spoke of Iran's close "cultural and spiritual ties" to Iraq and recounted all the aid Tehran had given. While Iran shared international concern about Iraq, he said the deteriorating security situation was "primarily caused by the flawed policies of the occupying powers, which overshadow efforts to deal with this and other issues."

Bush, Rice and others have repeatedly said that there was no point in talking to Iran or Syria until they changed their behavior, not only in Iraq but in what the United States views as their support of terrorism in Lebanon and elsewhere.

Rice said of her meeting with the Syrian foreign minister: "There needs to be some basis for a better relationship, that there needs to be concrete steps that show that on the Iraqi issue, for instance, that there is actually going to be action. But it was back and forth. I didn't lecture him. He didn't lecture me. It was a quite professional meeting."