House Speaker Pelosi to visit Syria
WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will visit Syria, a country President Bush has shunned as a sponsor of terrorism, despite being asked by the administration not to go.”In our view, it is not the right time to have these sort of high-profile visitors to Syria,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Friday.Pelosi arrived in Israel on Friday in what is her second fact-finding trip to the Middle East since taking over leadership of the House in January.Her repeat trip, an indication she plans to play a role in foreign policy, is also an act of defiance to the administration, which says such diplomatic overtures by lawmakers can do more harm than good.Pelosi will not be the first member of Congress in recent months to travel to Syria, but as House speaker she is the most senior.White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the speaker “should take a step back and think about the message that it sends.””This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror, one that is trying to disrupt the Saniora government in Lebanon and one that is allowing foreign fighters to flow into Iraq from its borders,” Perino said. Fuad Saniora is prime minister of Lebanon.Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “probably really wants people to come, and have a photo opportunity, and have tea with him, and have discussions about where they’re coming from. But we just think it’s a really bad idea,” Perino said.Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said the delegation “intends to discuss a wide range of security issues affecting the United States and the Middle East with representatives of governments in the region, including Syria,” as recommended by the Iraq Study Group.The independent bipartisan commission suggested in December that engaging Syria and Iran could help the war effort. The Bush administration eventually agreed to reach out to the two countries, but only to discuss Iraq.U.S. officials held their first direct, high-level contact with Syrian representatives in years when they met in Baghdad this month with officials from several Middle East countries to discuss Iraq.McCormack said the State Department tried to discourage Pelosi and the others from visiting Syria but agreed to give their staffs a pre-trip briefing. The U.S. Embassy in Damascus also is expected to assist the delegation.Others traveling with Pelosi were Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Henry Waxman and Tom Lantos of California, Louise Slaughter of New York and Nick Rahall of West Virginia, and Ohio Republican David Hobson. Ellison is the first Muslim member of Congress.The House has adjourned for a two-week spring break.The group planned to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and to travel to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Ellison’s spokesman, Rick Jauert.The speaker is expected to address the Israeli Knesset on Sunday, her first speech to a foreign government. She will become the highest-ranking American woman to speak before the Israeli parliament, according to her office.She is expected to discuss “America’s commitment to Israel and the challenges facing the two nations in the Middle East,” according to a statement.In late January, Pelosi and a close political ally, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., led a delegation of House members to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and other countries.The January trip to Baghdad came just days after the president asked Congress in his State of the Union address to give his revised war strategy a chance to work. Bush is sending 21,500 additional combat troops, plus thousands of other support troops, to Iraq in a bid to tamp down sectarian attacks and provide enough security to hasten reconstruction efforts.Pelosi last week forced legislation through the House that would order all combat troops out of Iraq by September 2008, a measure that resembles legislation approved by the Democratic-run Senate.—Associated Press writers Frederic J. Frommer, Jennifer Loven and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.