Rice to Meet Syrian Foreign Minister

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was to meet Syria's foreign minister Thursday during a regional conference here in the first high-level talks between the two countries in years, a U.S. official said.

Ahead of the meeting, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said Syria had taken action on stemming the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq -- a chief demand of the United States. "There has been some movement by the Syrians," U.S. Major General William Caldwell told a news conference.

"There has been a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq," he said.

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has shunned Syria -- accusing it of fueling tensions in Iraq and Lebanon -- and it sharply criticized a visit to Damascus last month by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But the White House has been under pressure to open dialogue with Syria and Iran, another staunch U.S. foe in the Middle East.

Still, a substantive U.S.-Iran meeting appeared less certain. The Iraqi government is pressing for Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to hold talks during the gathering, saying Washington's conflict with Tehran is only fueling the instability in Iraq.

"We expect that there will be a discussion between Secretary of State Rice and the Syrian foreign minister about Iraqi security issues," said a senior U.S. State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was still being arranged.

Baghdad and the United States hope Thursday and Friday's conference of nearly 50 nations at this Egyptian Red Sea resort will rally strong international support -- particularly from Arab nations -- for an ambitious plan to stabilize war-torn Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki opened the conference by urging all countries to forgive his country's enormous foreign debts -- estimated at about $50 billion.

Another $100 billion has already been written off by the Paris Club of lender nations.

But Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, made no immediate public pledge -- saying only that his country was in talks with Iraq and would consider such forgiveness.

Faisal told the conference only that his country "has expressed its readiness to alleviate some of the debts on Iraq" and was currently in discussions with Iraqi officials to deal with the issue.

Iraqi and U.S. officials had said Saudi Arabia privately had already committed to forgiving 80 percent of Iraq's $17 billion debt.

Signs of new tension between Iraq and Saudi Arabia emerged in the lead-up to the conference when Saudi King Abdullah turned down a request to meet with Maliki. The United States said it wished the Saudi king had met the Iraqi leader.

The conference aims in part to overcome differences between Maliki's Shiite-led government and Sunni Arab nations. Baghdad is pressing for forgiveness of debt and for Arabs to take greater action to prevent foreign fighters from joining the Iraqi insurgency.

Arab countries, in turn, demand that Maliki enact reforms -- also sought by the United States -- to ensure greater participation by Sunni Arabs in Iraq's political process.