News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqRice breaks the ice with Syria, but not Iran

Rice breaks the ice with Syria, but not Iran

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The Guardian: Efforts to stabilise Iraq by involving its neighbours in talks brought Condoleezza Rice together with Syria’s foreign minister yesterday for an ice-breaking meeting but talks with her Iranian opposite number, Manouchehr Mottaki, failed to happen. The Guardian

· Iraq conference backdrop for high level discussion
· US praises Damascus’s counter-insurgency effort

Ian Black in Sharm el-Sheikh

Efforts to stabilise Iraq by involving its neighbours in talks brought Condoleezza Rice together with Syria’s foreign minister yesterday for an ice-breaking meeting but talks with her Iranian opposite number, Manouchehr Mottaki, failed to happen.

The US secretary of state’s session with Walid Moualem on the margins of an international conference on Iraq followed rare praise from the US military that Syria was doing more to seal its border with Iraq to foreign fighters joining the Sunni insurgency.

“There has been some movement by the Syrians,” Major General William Caldwell said in Baghdad. “There has been a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq” for more than a month, he added.

The high-profile diplomatic encounter in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh was the first of its kind since Syria, Iran’s only Arab ally, was accused of being behind the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. It denies the charge and is resisting calls for a UN tribunal to investigate the killing.

Syria, which like Iran backs Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, is also seeking a rapprochement with the west, notching up successes with the EU but little progress with Washington.

US officials were at pains to point out that only Iraqi security – rather than broader relations – were discussed in a “professional and businesslike” exchange.

Ms Rice confirmed that she would not be meeting Mr Mottaki, though the two did exchange pleasantries at distance during lunch. Mr Mottaki said privately that Muslim custom meant he could not shake Ms Rice’s hand. The question last night was whether Ms Rice and Mr Mottaki would be seated on the same dinner table by their Egyptian hosts.

Diplomats said the Iranians were more reluctant about talks, though US sources also suggested that the Americans feel the right man for the first such meeting in nearly 30 years was Ali Larijani, Iran’s national security adviser, not Mr Mottaki.

Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister, said the Baghdad government was keen to get the two sides together. “We are carrying messages between them,” he said.

The Sharm summit also gave Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, the chance for her first meeting with Mr Mottaki since last month’s row over the capture of 15 British sailors and marines. “There is every reason why there has to be a constructive relationship,” she said after the talks. “But it has to be a two-way street.”

Mrs Beckett welcomed the US claim that Syria was being more helpful over its border with Iraq. But Mr Zebari said: “There is still more to do.”

Prospects for US talks with Iran and Syria overshadowed the conference agenda, which began with an appeal by the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, for forgiveness of an estimated $50bn (£25bn) debt inherited from the Saddam era. Saudi Arabia promised again to write off 80% of the $17bn it is owed, despite Sunni unhappiness at what it sees as the sectarian character of the Shia-led government.

Debt relief is part of the grandly named International Compact for Iraq, drawn up by the UN, World Bank and Iraq, and modelled on what was done for post-Taliban Afghanistan. Much of it is about economics, investment and reconstruction, but it includes a revenue-sharing oil law, legislation allowing members of the banned Ba’ath party back into public life, and setting a date for provincial elections. It is hoped that these “benchmarks” will draw Sunnis away from the insurgency and back into politics.

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