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US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday visited Saudi Arabia's unelected advisory council, the closest thing in the kingdom to a legislature, where she tried out her counterpart's chair, a privilege no Saudi woman can have because women cannot become legislators.
Pelosi, the first US woman house speaker, said she raised the issue of Saudi Arabia's lack of female politicians with Saudi government officials on the last stop of her Mideast tour, but she refrained from critcizing the kingdom over it.
"It's a nice view from here," said Pelosi as she sat in the chair, facing the ornate chamber with its deep blue and yellow chairs and gilded ironwork. "This chair is very comfortable."
US Rep. Tom Lantos, the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who was traveling with Pelosi, looked at the gavel in front of her and quipped: "It's a small gavel, Madame speaker. You may want to wield it."
Pelosi later sidestepped a question on how she felt about the absence of women Saudi female Shura members, saying: "I am very pleased that after 200 plus years in the US we finally have a speaker. It took us a long time."
Asked if she brought up the issue at Thursday's meeting with the council members, she said: "The issue has been brought up in our discussions with the Saudis on this trip."
The Majlis al-Shura, or Consultative Council, was expanded and given more powers in 1992 as a gesture toward forming a legislature. Its 150 members are chosen by the king and advise him, and the body has the power to propose new laws for the government's approval.
Saudi King Abdullah has spoken of reform in this key US ally, but change has been slow and limited. The kingdom, ruled by the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, held its first ever elections in 2005, choosing local councils. Women were barred from voting or running.
Pelosi arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, meeting with King Abdullah at his farm outside Riyadh.
He said the two sides discussed at length the Arab peace initiative, which was proposed by Saudi Arabia at a 2002 Arab summit and was relaunched at a summit in Riyadh last week. The initiative offers Israel a comprehensive peace with all Arab states if it withdraws from lands seized in the 1967 war and allows the creation of a Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem.
"I explained to him that this can be a very important and historic proposal if he is prepared for a discussion and a dialogue and not a presentation on a take-it-or-leave-it basis," said Lantos. "His reaction was very positive."
Lantos also said he brought up his legislation to create an international nuclear fuel bank that would make it unnecessary for any nation, including Iran, to develop uranium enrichment because nuclear fuel would be available.
Saudi Arabia and Gulf states have expressed an interest in developing nuclear energy programs, concerned by Iran's program. Iran has resisted UN demands it stop enriching uranium, a process that can produce fuel for a reactor or material for a warhead.
Pelosi said she had not discussed Abdullah's comments last week calling the US military presence in Iraq an "illegitimate occupation."
Pelosi was welcomed at the Shura council by its head, Sheik Saleh bin Humaid, who is also the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. He placed his right hand on his chest in a traditional Arab greeting and she returned the greeting in a similar manner.
During her meetings, Pelosi did not wear the long black robe, or abaya, and headscarf that Saudi and non-Saudi women have to wear in the kingdom. Visiting female dignitaries are not expected to wear it.
Ihsan Abu-Holeiqa, a member of the council, said the meeting with Pelosi on Thursday included discussion of the difficulties Saudis have in getting US visas, with some waiting four to five months. The lengthy process followed the Sept. 11 attacks carried out by 19 hijackers, 15 of them Saudis.
"We told her there should be some movement on the visa issue because, while we understand the security needs, the situation is unacceptable," said Abu-Holeiqa.
Pelosi's stop in Riyadh followed a visit to Syria, where she defied the White House's Middle East policy by meeting with President Bashar Assad. The Bush administration has rejected direct talks with Damascus and criticized Pelosi for her visit.
Pelosi was the highest-ranking American politician to visit Syria since relations began to deteriorate in 2003. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell went to Damascus in May 2003.
Washington accuses Syria of backing Hamas and Hezbollah, two groups it deems terrorist organizations, and fueling Iraq's violence by allowing Sunni insurgents to operate from its territory.
Pelosi leaves Saudi Arabia for Washington early Friday.