DAMASCUS, Syria — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held talks with Syria's leader Wednesday despite White House objections, saying she pressed President Bashar Assad over his country's support for militant groups and passed him a peace message from Israel.
The meeting was an attempt to push the Bush administration to open a direct dialogue with Syria, a step that the White House has rejected. Congressional Democrats insist the U.S. attempts to isolate Syria have failed to force the Assad government to change its policies.
Rep. Tom Lantos, the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who was in Pelosi's delegation, said the meeting "reinforced sharply" the potential benefits of talking to Syria. "This is only the beginning of our constructive dialogue with Syria and we hope to build on this visit," he told reporters.
On Tuesday, President Bush denounced Pelosi's visit to Syria, saying it sends mixed signals to Assad's government. "Sending delegations doesn't work. It's simply been counterproductive," Bush said.
Washington says Syria is fueling Iraq's violence by allowing Sunni insurgents to operate from its territory. It also accuses it of backing terrorism because of its support for the Hezbollah and Hamas militant groups and of destabilizing the Lebanese government.
"We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace," Pelosi told reporters after her talks with Assad.
Pelosi said she and her delegation "expressed our concern about Syria's connections to Hezbollah and Hamas" and discussed the issue of militant fights slipping across the Syrian border into Iraq.
"These are important issues not only in the fight against terrorism but important priorities for us for peace in the Middle East," she said.
She said she brought a message to Assad from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel was ready for peace talks with Syria. Assad gave assurances that "he's ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel," Pelosi said. She later left Syria, heading for Saudi Arabia, the next leg of a Mideast tour.
At a meeting Sunday, Olmert asked Pelosi to take a message to Assad that Israel would be interested in peace if Syria stops its support for terrorism. Assad has repeatedly said in the past year that Damascus is willing to negotiate with Israel, insisting the talks must lead to the return of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.
In the talks with Assad, the delegation raised the issue of Israeli soldiers kidnapped by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas and conveyed "the importance of Syria's role with Hamas in promoting peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis," Pelosi said.
Syria hosts the exiled leadership of Hamas, as well as other Palestinian radical groups, and is a major patron of Hezbollah. But while the United States regards Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups, Syria insists that Hamas is a legitimate resistance movement working for Palestinian freedom and Hezbollah is a regular Lebanese political party.
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.
Last year, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended Washington open talks with Iran and Syria to try to resolve the war in Iraq and other regional crises. Bush rejected the recommendations, insisting dialogue would not bring results. But in February, the U.S. joined a gathering of regional diplomats in Baghdad that included Iran and Syria for talks on Iraq.
"These people in the United States who are opposing dialogue I tell them one thing: Dialogue is ... the only method to close the gap existing between two countries," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters after the Assad-Pelosi meeting.
"Everyone knows there are different point of view between Syria and the United States," he said. "We are happy that Mrs. Pelosi and her delegation had the courage and determination to bridge these differences."
Bush said Pelosi's trip signals that the Assad government is part of the international mainstream when it is not. "A lot of people have gone to see President Assad ... and yet we haven't seen action. He hasn't responded," Bush told reporters soon after Pelosi arrived in Damascus on 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.