- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

DAMASCUS, Syria — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held talks with Syria’s leader yesterday despite White House objections, saying she pressed President Bashar Assad over his country’s support for militant groups and passed him a peace message from Israel.

The meeting was an attempt to push the Bush administration to open a direct dialogue with Syria, a step that the White House has rejected. Congressional Democrats insist the U.S. attempts to isolate Syria have failed to force the Assad government to change its policies.

Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who was in Mrs. Pelosi’s delegation, said the meeting “reinforced very strongly” the potential benefits of talking to Syria. “This is only the beginning of our constructive dialogue with Syria, and we hope to build on this visit,” he told reporters.

Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, later flew to Saudi Arabia, where she discussed Iraq and other regional issues with King Abdullah at his ranch in Janadriyah, about 25 miles northeast of the capital, Riyadh, Saudi Press Agency reported. She is later due to visit the oil-rich kingdom’s all-male Shura (consultative) Council.

On Tuesday, President Bush denounced Mrs. Pelosi’s visit to Syria, saying it sends mixed signals to Mr. Assad’s government. “Sending delegations doesn’t work. It’s simply been counterproductive,” Mr. Bush said.

Mrs. Pelosi accused the White House of singling out her Syria visit for criticism.

“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 in Lebanon on Monday, referring to the Sunday meeting of Reps. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania and Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama with Mr. Assad in Damascus.

“I think that it was an excellent idea for them to go,” she said. “And I think it’s an excellent idea for us to go, as well.”

Washington says Syria is fueling Iraq’s violence by allowing Sunni insurgents to operate from its territory. It also accuses it of backing terrorism because of its support for the Hezbollah and Hamas militant groups and of destabilizing the Lebanese government.

“We came in friendship, hope and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Mrs. Pelosi told reporters after her talks with Mr. Assad.

Mrs. Pelosi said she and her delegation “expressed our concern about Syria’s connections to Hezbollah and Hamas” and discussed the issue of militant fighters slipping across the Syrian border into Iraq.

“These are important issues not only in the fight against terrorism, but important priorities for us for peace in the Middle East,” she said.

She said she brought a message to Mr. Assad from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel was ready for peace talks with Syria. Mr. Assad gave assurances that “he’s ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel,” Mrs. Pelosi said.

Mr. Assad repeatedly has insisted that talks must lead to the return of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.

In the talks with Mr. Assad, the U.S. delegation raised the issue of Israeli soldiers kidnapped by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas and conveyed “the importance of Syria’s role with Hamas in promoting peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Mrs. Pelosi said.

Syria hosts the exiled leadership of Hamas, as well as other Palestinian radical groups, and is a major patron of Hezbollah. While the United States regards Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups, Syria insists that Hamas is a legitimate resistance movement working for Palestinian freedom and that Hezbollah is a regular Lebanese political party.

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