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U.S. House Speaker Meets With Syrian President

Pelosi (left) with President al-Assad in Damascus today (epa) April 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Despite criticism from U.S. President George W. Bush, the leading Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus today.

Emerging from the talks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California) told reporters in Damascus that al-Assad assured her of his willingness to engage in peace talks with Israel.

Pelosi said she had given al-Assad a message from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the Jewish state is ready for peace talks.

Ready For Talks With Israel

"Peace in the Middle East is a high priority for the American people and indeed for people in this region and in the world," Pelosi said. "We were very pleased with the reassurances we received from the president that he was ready to resume the peace process. He was ready to engage in negotiations with peace with Israel."

Pelosi also said that she and the members of Congress accompanying her raised other concerns with al-Assad. These included, Pelosi said, concerns about Israeli soldiers captured by the Syrian-supported Lebanese militant group Hizballah, Syria's relationship with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, and its porous border with Iraq:

"We called to the attention of the president our concerns about fighters crossing Iraq's area border to the detriment of the Iraqi people and our soldiers," Pelosi said.

The Iraq Study Group

Pelosi's visit comes in the wake of calls in the United States to engage Syria as part of a diplomatic effort to restore regional stability, particularly in Iraq. Such a call was urged by a bipartisan Congressional report issued late last year by the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Republican Secretary of State James Baker.

However, U.S. President George W. Bush rejected the call for dialogue with Syria -- dialogue that Baker said could distance Damascus from Iran to achieve progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in Iraq and Lebanon.

Bush has called Pelosi's visit "counterproductive." And on April 3, he reiterated Washington's view that Syria sponsors terrorism and interferes in Iraq -- charges denied by Damascus - during a news conference in Washington.

"Photo opportunities and/or meetings with President Assad lead the Assad government to believe they are part of the mainstream of the international community when, in fact, they are a state sponsor of terror; when, in fact, they are helping expedite, or at least not stopping, the movement of foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq," Bush said.

Pelosi, who arrived in Damascus on April 3, has dismissed Bush's criticism. She has pointed out that members of Congress from Bush's own Republican Party have also visited Syria this month.

Earlier today, she met with Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shar'a and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.

"With all of the officials we met with -- the [Syrian] foreign minister, the vice president, and the president -- we expressed our concern about Syria's connection to Hizballah and Hamas," Pelosi said.

Bush On The Defensive

Pelosi's trip is the latest challenge to the White House by Democrats since they won a congressional majority in elections in November. Democrats are taking a more assertive role on policy in the Middle East and Iraq.

Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustapha, was quoted today in the state-run press as saying that Syria is "wary of the sudden U.S. openness" and will respond cautiously.

A leading Jordanian newspaper, meanwhile, has hailed Pelosi's visit. "The Jordan Times" said today that Pelosi's diplomatic efforts "can make a dent in Syrian policies on Lebanon and Iraq, and contribute to their solution."