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White House Criticizes US House Speaker's Plan to Visit Syria


The Bush administration Friday criticized plans by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to visit Syria. Pelosi and a delegation of other House Democrats are expected to go to Damascus early next week as part of a broader Middle East trip. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Officials here say Speaker Pelosi and her delegation are getting all the customary logistical support from the State Department, including a policy briefing on Syria.

But in an unusual move, the Bush administration has publicly criticized the speaker's travel plans, saying the visit will undermine U.S.-led efforts to isolate the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Congressional aides say Pelosi and her colleagues began the mission Friday in Jerusalem where they were to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and would go on to Syria, then Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

Pelosi, who as House speaker is just behind Vice President Dick Cheney in the presidential line-of succession, would be the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria in several years.

At the White House, Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino said the visit was a very bad idea that can only help the Syrian government, which the United States accuses of meddling in Lebanon, supporting Palestinian extremists, and allowing foreign fighters to cross its borders into Iraq.

At a news briefing here, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the Assad government showcases visits of this kind to try to conceal its own political isolation:

"We don't think it would be appropriate for high-level visitors, even those from the Congress to pay a visit to Syria right now," he said. "The typical Syrian MO [mode of operation] on this is to use these visits to tell the rest of the world, to say: look, there's nothing wrong. We're having all these visitors coming to Damascus. There's no problem with our behavior. And they point to the visits as proof that there is no problem with their behavior and they are not, in fact, isolated."

McCormack said the administration's advice on visiting Syria would be the same to both Democrats and Republicans, while stressing that travel decisions are ultimately made by the legislators themselves.

Though it maintains diplomatic relations with Syria, the United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in 2005 after Syrian officials were implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Ellen Sauerbrey was in Damascus earlier this month in the highest-level State Department visit there in two years.

But McCormack said her talks were limited to her counterparts in the Syrian government and strictly confined to the issue of Iraqi refugees.

The Pelosi delegation also includes, among others, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Lantos and first-term Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress.

A group of Senators from both parties visited Damascus in December after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended greater U.S. dialogue with Syria and Iran in efforts to end Iraqi violence.