Rice expected to meet with Syrian foreign minister

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is likely to meet her counterpart from Syria at a conference on Iraq this week in Egypt, U.S. officials said, in what amounts to a significant break in White House efforts to isolate that country.

Rice's talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem, a former ambassador in Washington, would be the first high-level dialogue between Washington and Damascus since Rice became secretary of state two years ago.

In the past, Rice has disparaged the need for a dialogue with Syria, which the Bush administration accuses of allowing foreign fighters and weapons to cross its borders into Iraq and of meddling in Lebanon.

But the Bush administration is urgently seeking help from Iraq's neighbors to help stabilize the country, the purpose of two days of conferences at Sharm el-Sheik, a seaside resort on the tip of the Sinai peninsula. Iran's foreign minister also is attending the conclave, although prospects that he and Rice will talk directly are described as dimmer.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said a Rice meeting with Moualem "is a possibility," but cautioned that she'd seek to limit the talks to security in Iraq.

Other U.S. positions—including the need for an international tribunal to try the suspected killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in whose assassination Syria has been accused of playing a role—are "non-negotiable," McCormack said.

Late last week, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said there were early indications that Syria was trying to make it more difficult for foreign fighters to cross its long border with Iraq to join the Sunni Muslim Arab insurgency there.

"There is some possibility that Syria may have taken some actions to make it tougher for these foreign fighters to move through," Petraeus told the Associated Press in an interview.

McCormack didn't dispute that assertion, though he said the Syrians had "more to do" in that area.

Before the Egyptian conferences got under way, Rice met for 90 minutes Wednesday evening with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.