SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt - In a diplomatic turning point for the Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Thursday with Syria's foreign minister and expressed U.S. concerns about the country's porous border with Iraq.
"I didn't lecture him and he didn't lecture me," Rice said after the first Cabinet-level talks in years between the countries.
Prospects dimmed for a more dramatic face-to-face discussion between Rice and Iran's foreign minister. "We haven't planned and have not asked for a bilateral meeting, nor have they asked us," she said.
The administration has resisted talks with Syria and Iran despite the recommendations of allies, the Iraq Study Group and U.S. lawmakers from both parties.
"It's a start," Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said after the 30-minute session.
The carefully orchestrated meeting overshadowed the modest initial accomplishments from a 50-nation gathering devoted to improving Iraq's security and financial bottom line. Iraq's embattled prime minister was among those leaning on the U.S. to engage Syria and Iran, arguing they could help lessen the violence in neighboring Iraq.
Until now, Rice and President Bush had said Syria well knew what it could do to help Iraq - tighten its border - and did not need the U.S. to point it out. The U.S. claims Syria looks the other way while fighters from many countries cross its border to join the ranks of al-Qaida and other insurgent or terrorist groups in Iraq.
Ahead of the meeting, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said Syria had somewhat stemmed the flow of foreign fighters. "There has been some movement by the Syrians," said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell. "There has been a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq" for more than a month.
The administration has said it worries that Syria will use any contact with the U.S. as leverage in a dispute over alleged Syrian meddling in fragile Lebanon. Rice said that subject did not come up Thursday.
Rice's meeting with Moallem marked the first such high-level talks since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The U.S. withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in protest and has given a cold shoulder to the Syrian government since. Syria denies it had anything to do with the killing.
Moallem asked Rice to return an ambassador; she made no promises.
Rice said the talks were limited to Iraqi security. "I made clear we don't want to have a difficult relationship with Syria, but we need to have some basis for a better relationship."
Only last month the White House blistered House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a diplomatic trip to Damascus, and administration officials suggested afterward that Syrian President Bashar Assad had played the California Democrat for a fool.
"There's a difference in going to Damascus and having broad-scale discussions about a whole range of issues with Syria and that was the issue at the time," Rice said Thursday. "Having the secretary of state take an opportunity to speak to the foreign minister of Syria about a concrete problem involving Iraq, at an Iraqi neighbors conference, makes more sense."
Rice and Moallem have no specific plans to meet again. Lower-level diplomats from both countries will continue to discuss ways to improve security in Iraq, diplomats said.
"We are serious and we expect the United States to show the same seriousness," Moallem said. "We agreed to continue dialogue."
The Iraqi government is pressing for talks between Rice and Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, saying Washington's conflict with the government in Tehran is fueling instability in Iraq.
Rice and the Iranian "said hello, that's about it," at a luncheon Thursday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
They missed one another entirely at dinner.
Although Rice had seemed to invite a broader engagement with Iran ahead of the Iraq meeting, the tone changed in recent days. U.S. officials played down the chances for any substantive exchange, and some said they would wait for clearer signals from the Iranians that they were ready to talk.
The U.S. cut diplomatic relations with Iran shortly after the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Bush administration labeled Iran part of an "axis of evil," and Iranian leaders still refer to the United States as the Great Satan.
Meanwhile, the British and Iranian foreign ministers met for the first time, a month after Tehran freed 15 British sailors following a 13-day standoff that frayed relations between the two countries. British officials gave no details of their talks.
Britain insists that the sailors were in Iraqi waters, while Iran maintains they were in Iranian waters. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad freed the 14 men and one woman on April 4, calling their release a gift to Britain.
The U.S. pressed hard in the weeks before the conference to get Arab countries to participate and urged them to forgive Iraq's billions of dollars of debt. It was with that request that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki opened the conference.
The conference aims in part to overcome differences between al-Maliki's Shiite-led government and Sunni Arab nations, which are demanding that the Iraqi government ensure greater participation by Sunni Arabs in Iraq's political process.
Al-Maliki pledged to institute reforms to boost Sunni participation but said forgiving Iraq its debts was the only way the country could rebuild.
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