- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 25, 2018

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Accusations escalated Wednesday in Ohio’s Democratic primary for governor over former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s work with an organization sympathetic to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Kucinich lashed out against former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland for participating in “unfounded and inflammatory” attacks that “grossly misportrayed” his work in the Middle East and with two Lebanese Christian campaign donors who he said now fear for their safety.

Earlier this month, the U.S. and its allies attacked Syrian chemical weapons stores that intelligence agencies allege Assad’s dictatorship used on its own people.

Elie and Bassam Khawam helped facilitate Kucinich’s 2017 trip to London to speak at what the Democrat has characterized as a peace conference. The brothers, who live in California and Ohio, respectively, also accompanied Kucinich on what he has described as peace missions to Syria during which he met with Assad.

Strickland, who supports rival gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, criticized Kucinich last week for accepting and failing to initially report a $20,000 speaking fee from the Association for Investment in Popular Action Committees, the parent group to the pro-Assad Syrian Solidarity Movement. He called on Kucinich to disclose other contributions he’s taken from similar organizations over the years.

Strickland accused Kucinich of “questionable financial dealings” related to Syria and associations with “the most despicable people imaginable.”

Kucinich’s campaign said the Khawams are Lebanese Christians who fled war-torn Lebanon in the late 1970s and became American citizens and businessmen. He also noted that the brothers have donated to a host of Democratic candidates over the years, including Strickland, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Ohio U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown.

In a statement distributed by Kucinich, Bassam Khawam said he and his brother support Kucinich because he “believes in peace.”

“He’s met with the people of Syria and Lebanon. He’s been in Aleppo,” he said. “He’s talked with the religious leaders of Syria, Lebanon and Israel, and he’s met with the elected leaders in those countries - all to try to find ways to resolve the conflicts and end the wars.”

Strickland said in a telephone interview Wednesday that his remarks weren’t targeting the Khawams but those behind the Syrian Solidarity Movement more generally. That group was founded by Paul Larudee, treasurer of the association that paid Kucinich.

Larudee told The Associated Press on Wednesday that his own efforts toward peace in the Mideast have included meetings with terrorists. That has included dealings with members of the Islamic group Hamas and a few people formerly associated with al-Qaida, he said.

“Yes, we have met and spoken with people who would be considered terrorists,” Larudee said. “I think it’s important to talk with people that you consider the enemy, or adversary, or people who have a difference of opinion. I think it’s always important to understand and find a way to make peace. So that’s part of what we do.”

Kucinich campaign spokesman Andy Juniewicz said it is not unusual for those seeking peace to meet with dictators: U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has met with Assad, and President Donald Trump plans a meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

“Peace is a process, one that must involve everyone who’s involved in the violence that peace-seekers want to bring to an end,” he said. “In Syria, in Lebanon, in Israel, (Kucinich) has met with everyone willing to talk, sometimes at great personal peril. That’s how important it is to him to end wars, prevent wars, and establish meaningful peace.”

Cordray campaign spokesman Mike Gwin said Ohioans are “justifiably” concerned about Kucinich’s relationship to a “murderous dictator.”

Strickland did not deny that he may have taken campaign contributions from the brothers.

“I think that’s a different set of circumstances than, over many years, speaking out in the most public way and taking money for travel in order to speak positively about Assad,” he said. “I think he’s grasping at straws trying to establish an equivalency here.”

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