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Pelosi Shrugs Off White House Criticism

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By ZEINA KARAM
The Associated Press
Monday, April 2, 2007; 9:31 PM

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Monday shrugged off White House criticism of her impending visit to Damascus, saying she had "great hope" for reviving U.S. relations with Syria and changing its behavior.

Speaking hours after arriving in Lebanon, Pelosi indicated the Bush administration was singling out her trip to Syria while ignoring recent visits by Republican members of Congress.

"It's interesting because three of our colleagues, who are all Republicans, were in Syria yesterday and I didn't hear the White House speaking out about that," Pelosi said, referring to the Sunday meeting of Reps. Frank Wolf, Joe Pitts and Robert Aderholt with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus.

"I think that it was an excellent idea for them to go," said Pelosi, who is to meet with Syrian leaders Wednesday. "And I think it's an excellent idea for us to go, as well."

In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino stressed Monday that the Bush administration objected to all visits to Syria.

"We ask that people not go on these trips," she said. "We discourage it. Full stop."

The State Department later said Pelosi was briefed by the Bush administration for her trip, but spokesman Sean McCormack said that did not represent an endorsement of the visit.

The United States has poor relations with Syria, accusing it of interfering in Iraq and Lebanon and sponsoring terrorists _ charges that Damascus denies. Perino last week described Pelosi's visit to Syria as a "really bad idea."

Last year, a bipartisan commission known as the Iraq Study Group recommended the U.S. launch a new diplomatic initiative with Syria and Iran. The Bush administration rejected the idea, but the U.S. did participate in a regional security conference in Baghdad last month that also included representatives from Iran and Syria.

Perino said it "sends the wrong message to have high-level U.S. officials going there (to Syria) to have photo opportunities that Assad then exploits."

But Pelosi said she thinks it is a good idea to "establish facts, to hopefully build the confidence" between the U.S. and Syria.

"We have no illusions, but we have great hope," she said.

In Damascus, a state-run newspaper welcomed Pelosi's visit, saying that through dialogue "a lot of misunderstandings (with the United States) could be removed."

Pelosi, who is leading a congressional delegation on a fact-finding tour of the Middle East, said she would speak to the Syrians about Iraq, their role in the fight against terrorism, their support for militant groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas _ whose exiled leaders live in Damascus _ as well their influence in Lebanon.

Washington has accused Damascus of not doing enough to stop militants from crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border to join the Iraqi insurgency and stoking tensions in Lebanon.

A member of the delegation, Rep. Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California, said the group had no illusions about their visit to Damascus.

"We are going with the clear intention of making our position crystal clear to the Syrian leadership, basically indicating that it is in their interest to return to a position where they can be part of the positive forces in this region and not be in tight alliance with Ahmedinejad's Iran," Lantos said, referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Pelosi and Lantos spoke after talks with Saad Hariri, the leader of the Lebanon's parliamentary majority, which is opposed to Syria. He is the son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in a car bombing two years ago _ an attack many Lebanese blame on Syria. Damascus has denied a role in the killing.

Pelosi also paid her respects at Rafik Hariri's grave in Beirut.

Lebanon is embroiled in a power struggle between the Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the Hezbollah-led opposition, which is trying to bring down the government through boycotts and demonstrations.

Pelosi met with Saniora and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a major figure in the Hezbollah-led opposition. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.

Lebanon's anti-Syrian leaders are wary of better relations between Syria and the West, fearing they could weaken efforts to end the Syrian influence in the country, which remains significant two years after the withdrawal of the Syrian army.

___

Associated Press writer Jennifer Loven in Washington contributed to this report.


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