DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met Syrian government officials Wednesday for talks criticized by the White House as undermining American efforts to isolate the hard-line Arab country.
Pelosi and accompanying members of Congress began their day with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and were expected to see President Bashar Assad later for talks and lunch.
The Californian Democrat has brushed off criticism from President George W. Bush’s administration, pointing out that other members of Congress have visited Syria this month and arguing that she aimed to initiate dialogue with Assad’s government and try to change its behavior.
Bush has said Pelosi’s trip signals that the Assad government is part of the international mainstream when it is not. The United States says Syria allows Iraqi Sunni insurgents to operate from its territory, backs the Hezbollah and Hamas militant groups and is trying to destabilize the Lebanese government. Syria denies the allegations.
Pelosi’s visit to Syria was the latest challenge to the White House by congressional Democrats, who are taking a more assertive role in influencing policy in the Middle East and the Iraq war. The Bush administration has resisted calls for direct talks to help ease the crisis in Iraq and make progress in the Israel-Palestinian peace process. Soon after Pelosi’s arrival in Damascus on Tuesday, Bush criticized her visit.
“A lot of people have gone to see President Assad … and yet we haven’t seen action. He hasn’t responded,” he told reporters at a Rose Garden news conference. “Sending delegations doesn’t work. It’s simply been counterproductive.”
Pelosi did not comment on Bush’s remarks but went for a stroll in the Old City district of Damascus, where she mingled with Syrians in a market.
Wearing a flowered head scarf and a black abaya robe, Pelosi visited the 8th-century Omayyad Mosque. She made the sign of the cross in front of an elaborate tomb which is said to contain the head of John the Baptist. About 10 percent of Syria’s 18 million people are Christian.
At the nearby outdoor Bazouriyeh market, Syrians crowded around, offering her dried figs and nuts and chatting with her. She bought some coconut sweets and looked at jewelry and carpets.
The Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, was quoted in the state-run press on Wednesday as saying Syria was “wary of the sudden U.S. openness” and would respond cautiously. “Syria will not hurriedly offer concessions when it refused to offer them under much greater pressure from the United States in the past,” he said in an interview with the Al-Baath newspaper, the mouthpiece of the ruling party. “Syria will take a step forward every time the Americans take one,” he added.
Democrats have argued that the U.S. should engage its top rivals in the Mideast, Iran and Syria, to make headway in easing crises in Iraq, Lebanon and the Israeli-Arab peace process. Last year, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended talks with the two countries.
Bush rejected the recommendations. But in February, the U.S. joined a gathering of regional diplomats in Baghdad that included Iran and Syria for talks on Iraq.
Visiting neighboring Lebanon on Monday, Pelosi shrugged off White House criticism of her trip to Syria, noting that Republican lawmakers met Assad on Sunday without comment from the Bush administration. She said she hoped to rebuild lost confidence between Washington and Damascus and would tell Syrian leaders that Israel will talk peace with them only if Syria stops supporting Palestinian militants. She said she would also raise Syria’s roles in Iraq and Lebanon and their support for the Hezbollah militant group.
“We have no illusions but we have great hope,” said Pelosi, who met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah earlier Tuesday.
Relations between the U.S. and Syria reached a low point in early 2005 when Washington withdrew its ambassador to Damascus to protest the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese blamed Syria, which had troops in Lebanon at the time, for the assassination. Damascus denied involvement.
Washington has since succeeded in largely isolating Damascus, with its European and Arab allies shunning Assad. The last high-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria was then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in January 2005.
The isolation, however, has begun to crumble in recent months, with visits by U.S. lawmakers and some European officials.