Pelosi, colleagues push Assad to stop backing militants

The Baltimore Sun

DAMASCUS, Syria -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her delegation said they had frank discussions with President Bashar Assad and other senior Syrian officials here yesterday, pressing the president over Syria's support for militant groups and insisting that his government block militants seeking to cross into Iraq and join insurgents there.

Delegation members said they sought to persuade Assad to distance himself from Iran, Syria's ally in the growing confrontation with the so-called quartet of moderate Arab states, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

They said Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who is chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, asked Assad how someone "of his intelligence and knowledge of the world could have common cause with President Ahmadinejad of Iran, who has denied the Holocaust and calls for the elimination of Israel."

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Pelosi announced that she had conveyed a message to Assad from Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, that he was ready to negotiate for peace.

Shortly afterward, however, Olmert's office issued a clarification of his message, saying that "although Israel is interested in peace with Syria, that country continues to be part of the axis of evil and a force that encourages terror in the entire Middle East."

To begin serious peace negotiations, the statement said, Syria must stop supporting terrorism, stop sponsoring Hamas and Islamic Jihad, refrain from providing weapons to Hezbollah and bringing about the destabilizing of Lebanon, stop supporting terrorism in Iraq and relinquish the strategic ties it is building with the Iranian government.

Members of the delegation said that among the issues they took up was the case of the three Israeli soldiers being held by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran, and the Palestinian group Hamas.

In addition to Lantos, the delegation includes Reps. Henry A. Waxman of California, Louise M. Slaughter of New York, Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia, and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, all Democrats, and David L. Hobson, an Ohio Republican.

The lawmakers said they sought to emphasize Syria's importance in bringing peace to Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

"We came in friendship, hope and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace," Pelosi said after the meetings.

Her visit has been criticized by the Bush administration and dismissed by some in the Middle East as a play for domestic politics.

President Bush said Tuesday that he saw little point in talking to Syria. "Sending delegations hasn't worked," he said. "It's just simply been counterproductive."

Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, seized on Pelosi's comment about the "road to peace," saying yesterday during a briefing on Air Force One: "Unfortunately, that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, and the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq. It's lined with the victims in Lebanon, who are trying to fight for democracy there. It's lined with human rights activists trying for freedom and democracy in Syria."

Pelosi's trip, sparked by an invitation from Assad and encouraged by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, is part of an attempt to sway Bush administration policy on the Middle East.

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