US House speaker starts Syria visit amid criticism

United States House speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Syria on Tuesday for a controversial two-day visit amid protests from the White House that she is undermining US policy.

Pelosi, an ardent opponent of US President George Bush, smiled and shook hands with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who welcomed her to Damascus. On Wednesday, she is due to meet President Bashar al-Assad.

But as she kicked off her visit, Bush warned in Washington that trips to Syria by high-ranking figures send “mixed signals” that harm administration efforts to isolate Assad.

“Photo opportunities and/or meetings with President Assad lead the Assad government to believe they’re part of the mainstream of the international community, when, in fact, they’re a state sponsor of terror,” Bush told reporters in Washington.

Syria is “helping expedite, or at least not stopping, the movement of foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq”, Bush charged, adding that Damascus has “done little to nothing to rein in militant Hamas and Hezbollah” and worked to “destabilise the Lebanese democracy”.

“We have made it clear to high-ranking officials, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, that going to Syria sends mixed signals, signals in the region and, of course, mixed signals to President Assad,” Bush said in his first public remarks on the visit.

“The position of this administration is that the best way to meet with a leader like Assad or people from Syria is in the larger context of trying to get the global community to help change his behaviour,” he said.

The United States withdrew its ambassador from Syria after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, in which a United Nations investigation has implicated Syrian officials despite Damascus’s denials.

Washington had already imposed economic sanctions on Damascus in 2004, accusing Syria of harbouring terror groups, backing insurgents in Iraq and meddling in Lebanon.

Syrian news agency Sana said Pelosi’s talks will focus on “Syrian-American relations as well as regional issues.”

Government dailies hailed the visit as an attempt to re-balance US policy in the region.

“American legislators, Democrats as well as Republicans, are aware that US policy in the region, especially the war in Iraq and its ties with Syria, is a fiasco that must be repaired,” said the daily Tishrin.

Syria “is ready for serious and sincere dialogue with the US officials.”

The English-language Syria Times described Pelosi as a “brave lady” on an “invaluable” mission.

The Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, told Tishrin Pelosi’s visit was “a positive step ... in the framework of a calm dialogue” between the two countries.

“We may differ politically but we must remain involved on the diplomatic front in a dialogue in order to reach some understanding,” he said.

Pelosi has shrugged off the administration’s criticism and insisted her talks with Assad were key to renewing a dialogue on Iraq and Lebanon.

“Our trip to Syria is one that is important to us ...
[and] is part of our responsibility for the national security of the United States,” she said in Beirut on Monday.

She said that during her visit “we will be talking about the overarching issue, the fight against terrorism and the role that Syria can play to help or to hinder that role”.—AFP

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