BEIRUT — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday shrugged off White House criticism of her upcoming trip to Damascus, saying she had “great hope” for reviving U.S. relations with Syria and changing its behavior.
Speaking hours after arriving in Lebanon, Mrs. Pelosi indicated the Bush administration was singling out her trip to Syria but ignoring the recent visits by Republican members of Congress.
“It’s interesting because three of our colleagues, who are all Republicans, were in Syria yesterday and I didn’t hear the White House speaking out about that,” Mrs. Pelosi said, referring to the Sunday meeting of Reps. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania and Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus.
“I think that it was an excellent idea for them to go,” said Mrs. Pelosi, who is to meet Syrian leaders tomorrow. “And I think it’s an excellent idea for us to go as well.”
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said it was a bad idea for both Democrats and Republicans to go to Syria.
“It sends the wrong message to have high level U.S. officials go over there to have photo opportunities that Assad then exploits,” Mrs. Perino.
“The government of Syria continues to undermine the democratically elected government of Lebanon. They are allowing foreign enemy fighters to pass into Iraq through its border with Iraq, which is not only targeting our American soldiers, but Iraqi soldiers, as well as innocent Iraqi people. [Mr. Assad] knows that,” Mrs. Perino said.
“Our policy and our feelings apply to everybody,” Mrs. Perino said.
The United States has poor relations with Syria, accusing it of interfering in Iraq and Lebanon and sponsoring terrorists — charges that Damascus denies. Mrs. Perino last week described Mrs. Pelosi’s visit to Syria as a “really bad idea.”
Last year, a bipartisan commission known as the Iraq Study Group recommended the U.S. begin a new diplomatic initiative with Syria and Iran. The Bush administration rejected the idea, but the U.S. did participate in a regional security conference in Baghdad last month that also included representatives from Iran and Syria.
Mrs. Pelosi said she thinks it’s a good idea to “establish facts, to hopefully build the confidence” between the U.S. and Syria.
“We have no illusions, but we have great hope,” she said.
In Damascus, a state-run newspaper welcomed Mrs. Pelosi’s visit, saying that through dialogue “a lot of misunderstandings [with the United States] could be removed.”
Mrs. Pelosi, who is leading a congressional delegation on a fact-finding tour of the Middle East, said she would speak to the Syrians about Iraq, their role in the fight against terrorism, their support for militant groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas — whose exiled leaders live in Damascus — as well their influence in Lebanon.
Washington has accused Damascus of not doing enough to stop militants from crossing the Syria-Iraq border to join the Iraqi insurgency and stoking tensions in Lebanon.
A member of the delegation, Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat, said the group had no illusions about their visit to Damascus.
“We are going with the clear intention of making our position crystal clear to the Syrian leadership, basically indicating that it is in their interest to return to a position where they can be part of the positive forces in this region and not be in tight alliance with Ahmadinejad’s Iran,” Mr. Lantos said, referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Staff writer Jon Ward contributed to this report from Washington.