Wednesday, May 2, 2007

DAMASCUS, Syria — The second most popular politician in Syria these days may be an American: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The California Democrat warmed Syrian hearts with her trip last month to Damascus, an event that people still share with visiting Americans as conversational currency.

“Nancy Pelosi is good, yes?” asked a Damascus laborer who found himself sitting next to an American at a greasy gyro stand this week. “Nancy Pelosi, good American.”

Pictures of Mrs. Pelosi and Syrian President Bashar Assad — officially Syria’s most popular citizen — still turn up on the local news channels, especially during coverage of the dispute between President Bush and Congress over the Iraq war spending bill.

Mrs. Pelosi’s two-day visit to Damascus was a major news event here. Camera crews trailed her as she bought sweets in the ancient Hamadieh souk, made the sign of the cross at what is thought to be the tomb of John the Baptist and donned a black abaya to visit the historic Omayyad Mosque.

Mrs. Pelosi, 67, is praised as “a friend of Syria,” and that makes her more influential than Oprah Winfrey and more appealing than the old Hollywood movies shown on satellite television.

Many Damascus residents say her private visit with Mr. Assad and senior ministers shattered Washington’s attempt to isolate the regime.

“She was enormously popular here, a hero,” said one such resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “This is the best thing that has happened here, if it proves [Mr. Assad] was right not to give concessions.”

Along with recent visits by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and officials from the European Union, the resident added, Mrs. Pelosi’s trip “bolsters the regime with the Syrian people, and it shows that isolating Syria won’t work.”

More than burnishing the regime’s image in Syria, Mrs. Pelosi is seen as the well-dressed woman who stood up to President Bush, possibly the most unpopular figure in the Arab world after former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The White House criticized her visit, both on the constitutional grounds that she was usurping executive powers and on policy grounds that she was undermining months of diplomatic efforts.

Mrs. Pelosi said she raised substantive issues with Syrian leaders, urging them to stop insurgents from entering Iraq, help win the release of Israeli soldiers thought to be held captive by Lebanese and Palestinian militias, and end Syria’s support for terrorist groups.

But nobody talks about that now.

“I love her,” said an Iraqi woman who has emigrated to Syria. “She’s a grandmother, so handsome, so cute. I see myself, my old self, in her.”

Despite the lingering personal affection, few expect U.S. policy to change as a result of Mrs. Pelosi’s visit.

“She is a different face of America, but she does not have ideas, any solutions,” the Iraqi woman said. “I watch TV all day, and I know that only the faces change.”

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