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Pelosi, others speak frankly with Assad

Syrian leader is urged to distance self from Iran

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DAMASCUS, Syria — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her delegation said they had frank words with President Bashar Assad and other senior Syrian officials here on Wednesday, 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 that 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 also said that Tom Lantos, the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that he 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 on Wednesday, 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, insisting 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 launch serious peace negotiations, the statement said, Syria must cease its support of terror, cease its sponsoring of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations, refrain from providing weapons to Hezbollah and bringing about the destabilizing of Lebanon, cease its support of terror in Iraq, and relinquish the strategic ties it is building with the extremist regime in Iran.

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, as well as David L. Hobson, R-Ohio.

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

At the White House on Tuesday, President Bush told reporters that he saw little point in talking to Syria now. "Sending delegations hasn't worked," he said. "It's just simply been counterproductive."

And on Wednesday, Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, seized upon Pelosi's comment on the "road to peace," to say, in 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."