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US Lawmakers React to Rice Meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister


There's been some initial reaction on Capitol Hill to the meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Syria's foreign minister on the sidelines of a regional meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Foreign ministers at the conference have been discussing the situation in Iraq. VOA's Dan Robinson reports.

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Democrat Tom Lantos, has been calling for stepped up contacts between the Bush administration and Syria and Iran for some time.

In a statement issued after news first arrived of Secretary Rice's 30 minute meeting with Syria's foreign minister Walid al-Moallem, Lantos called it, in his words, "a marked improvement in the administration's ostrich policy approach."

Lantos also described the meeting as a tacit admission that the administration was wrong when it criticized Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, for visiting Damascus during a regional tour earlier this year. Lantos accompanied the House speaker on her visit to Syria.

During a news conference Thursday, Republican House minority leader John Boehner said that if Secretary Rice believed there could be some common ground and wanted to meet the Syrian official, then in his words, it was her choice. "The fact is that they have not been our friends. They have supported terrorism throughout the region, but if there is some effort to get them to act like the Libyans did some years ago, when they gave up their nuclear weapons program and decided they wanted to be with the good guys in this fight [if] that opportunity is there, why not seize it. We will see," he said.

Asked by a reporter why he did not make such a statement when speaker Pelosi visited Syria, Boehner said he still believes that Pelosi intended, by going to Syria, to embarrass the Bush administration.

There was no immediate response from Pelosi's office to the renewed criticism of her visit to Syria, where she met President Bashar al-Assad as well as the Syrian foreign minister.

Democrats have accused Republicans of a double-standard in criticizing the Pelosi visit, noting that a Republican congressional delegation was in Damascus the same week.

More reaction to the Rice-Syria meeting came from House Republican Christopher Shays who, in brief remarks to VOA, characterized the meeting as a positive development.

Although members of Congress will be watching for any positive developments growing out of the Rice - Syria meeting, particularly on the issue of cross-border terrorist infiltration into Iraq, most lawmakers remain skeptical and continue to demand changes in Syrian policy on a broader level.

Lawmakers and the Bush administration have criticized Syria for what they say is the country's support for Palestinian extremists and its meddling in Lebanon.

Secretary Rice characterized her meeting with the Syrian foreign minister as "professional and business-like" adding that she urged Syria to stop foreign fighters from entering Iraq.