SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice broke more than two years' worth of diplomatic ice with Syria on Thursday, holding talks here with a top Syrian official in what amounts to a major diplomatic course change by the Bush administration.
Rice said afterward that the meeting, held on the sidelines of an international conference on Iraq, focused on U.S. demands that Syria close its border with Iraq to stem a flow of foreign fighters and arms that's helping fuel Iraq's sectarian violence.
Even on those limited terms, the half-hour meeting between Rice and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem marked a major shift for the Bush administration, which has repeatedly disparaged the need for such talks and criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for visiting Damascus last month.
Engagement with Syria and Iran was one of the major recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which urged President Bush to take a region-wide diplomatic approach by working to stabilize Iraq and secure Arab-Israeli peace. Bush and Rice appear to be accepting some of those recommendations.
Iran's foreign minister is also present for two days of conferences on Iraq at this Red Sea resort, but there were no plans for a meeting with Rice beyond the pleasantries they exchanged over lunch Thursday.
Of her meeting with Moualem, Rice told reporters, "We don't want to have a difficult relationship with Syria, but there needs to be some basis for a better relationship . . . there needs to be concrete steps that show that on the Iraqi issue, for instance, that there is actually going to be action.
"I didn't lecture him. He didn't lecture me," she said.
Moualem called the talks "constructive and frank" and said they dwelled on "the necessity of achieving security and stability" in Iraq.
The Bush administration has charged for years that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has done little to stop foreign Arab fighters from traveling through Syria to Iraq, where they join the Sunni Muslim insurgency in attacking U.S. troops and Shiite Muslims.
But in the last week, senior U.S. military officers in Baghdad have said they've detected a decrease in cross-border flows.
A senior State Department official said Iraq and Syria will soon hold technical talks on border issues, and the United States may send a representative. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
It was only one month ago that Bush and his conservative backers excoriated Pelosi for traveling to Damascus to meet Assad.
"Sending delegations hasn't worked. It's just simply been counterproductive," Bush said then.
Asked about that Thursday, Rice said there was a difference in a congressional delegation going to Damascus for wide-ranging talks and the secretary of state speaking to the foreign minister at a conference of Iraq's neighbors about a concrete problem. The latter "makes more sense," she said.
Rice telephoned Pelosi before she left for the Middle East on Tuesday to confer about Syria, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
A leading Democrat was critical nonetheless. "This is a marked improvement in the administration's ostrich policy approach and a tacit admission of how wrong it was last month in criticizing the speaker of the House and congressional colleagues, including myself, for going to Damascus," said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
Rice also could face heat from the Republican party's right wing, which has been rankled by her advocacy of a nuclear deal with North Korea and her openness to talks with Iran.
The United States and Syria have a medley of disagreements aside from Iraq, including Syria's involvement in Lebanon and its backing of violent Palestinian groups that are opposed to Israel.
The United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus after the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in which Syria has been accused of playing a role. Moualem on Thursday asked Rice to return an ambassador; she was noncommittal, U.S. diplomats said.
Thursday's meeting was the first of its kind since Secretary of State Colin Powell met Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa in New York on Sept. 22, 2004.
At the conference, Iraq and roughly 60 nations and international organizations launched a five-year "International Compact for Iraq," which promises greater aid in return for political and economic changes by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said the participants made $30 billion in commitments to Iraq, some of them previously announced, including substantial relief of Iraq's prewar debts.