Pelosi Plans Trip to Syria Next Week

President Bush reportedly did not object when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) informed him of her plan to visit Syria's capital after a trip to Israel.
President Bush reportedly did not object when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) informed him of her plan to visit Syria's capital after a trip to Israel. (Pool Photo By Dennis Brack)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2007

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will visit Syria next week, her office announced yesterday, prompting the White House to call the trip "a really bad idea."

Pelosi's visit to Damascus is to be a centerpiece of a week-long Middle East tour that began yesterday in Israel. Both the White House and State Department knew about the visit in advance.

For security reasons, Pelosi staffers held off announcing the trip until after her arrival in Israel yesterday, and they had planned to announce the Syria leg after her departure from that country, Democratic aides said. After media inquiries, Pelosi's office issued a statement.

"As recommended by the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan delegation led by Speaker Pelosi intends to discuss a wide range of security issues affecting the United States and the Middle East with representatives of governments in the region, including Syria," the statement read.

The White House accuses Syria of sponsoring state terrorism and of fanning sectarian violence in Iraq. The Bush administration has cut off most high-level contacts with Damascus since former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated in February 2005. A United Nations prosecutor has implicated Syrian officials in the Hariri slaying.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said yesterday of Pelosi's visit: "Someone should take a step back and think about the message that it sends and the message that it sends to our allies."

Democrats were quick to point out that Perino did not speak out about a Syria trip planned for about the same time by a Republican-led delegation.

Pelosi will address the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, on Sunday and will also visit the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Her delegation includes Reps. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs; Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the House's only Muslim lawmaker; Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.); Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.); and David L. Hobson (R-Ohio).

Pelosi personally informed President Bush on Thursday of her travel plans, and he did not raise any objections, a person with knowledge of that conversation said.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the department briefed the group and will provide routine support on the ground.

"In our view, it's not the right time to have those sort of high-profile visitors to Syria," McCormack told reporters yesterday.

Syrian leaders, he said, "point to the visits as proof that there is no problem with their behavior and that they are not, in fact, isolated. So that's the simple reason why we have encouraged others as well as Speaker Pelosi not to travel. . . . They made the decision to go forward."

The Iraq Study Group recommended in December that Washington reach out to Damascus for help in shutting down the insurgency in Iraq. Since then, a number of lawmakers, including Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), have visited the Syrian capital for talks.

Pelosi's trip has been in the works for several weeks, an aide said. In a March 13 address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the speaker said that Dalia Itzik, Israel's acting president and Knesset speaker, had "invited me to address the Knesset. . . . This invitation alone is one of the great thrills of my official life."

Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.

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