The speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and a delegation of other House Democrats have arrived in Israel, their first stop on a fact-finding mission to the Middle East.
Pelosi's delegation includes, among others, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos and first-term Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress.
They are expected to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the coming days.
Pelosi and her colleagues also are scheduled to travel to Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
The Bush administration has discouraged Pelosi's planned trip to Syria. A White House spokeswoman said Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism, and she called Pelosi's trip to Damascus a "really bad idea."
On Friday, a State Department spokesman said the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad showcases visits of this kind to try to conceal his country's political isolation.
U.S. officials accuse Syria of interfering in Lebanon, supporting Palestinian extremists, and allowing foreign fighters to cross its borders into Iraq.
Although the United States maintains diplomatic relations with Syria, the U.S. withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in 2005 after Syrian officials were implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
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 violence in Iraq.
Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.