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US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Monday shrugged off White House criticism of her coming trip to Damascus, saying she had "great hope" for reviving relations with Syria and changing its behavior.
Speaking hours after arriving in Lebanon, Pelosi indicated President George W. Bush's administration was singling out her trip to Syria, but ignoring that of other 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 congressmen Frank Wolf, Joe Pitts and Robert Aderholt with President Bashar Assad in Damascus.
"I think that it was an excellent idea for them to go," said Pelosi, who is due to meet the Syrian leadership on Wednesday. "And I think it's an excellent idea for us to go as well."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino on Monday stressed that the Bush administration objects to all visits to Syria.
"We ask that people not go on these trips," Perino said in Washington. "We discourage it. Full stop."
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."
Later Monday, the US State Department disclosed that the Bush administration briefed Pelosi for her trip while publicly criticizing her decision.
Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the briefing did not represent an endorsement of the visit and denied that she carried any message from the Bush government. "No messages in the sense that this was a trip that was encouraged by the executive branch of the government," McCormack said.
Last year a bipartisan commission known as the Iraq Study Group recommended that the United States launch a new diplomatic initiative with Syria and Iran. The Bush administration has rejected this but did participate in a March 10 international conference in Baghdad that also included representatives from Iran and Syria.
Perino said the Bush administration believes Syria knows what it needs to do and it "sends the wrong message to have high-level US officials going there to have photo opportunities that Assad then exploits."
But Pelosi said she thinks it's a good idea to "establish facts, to hopefully build the confidence" between the US and Syria.
"We have no illusions, but we have great hope," she said.
In Damascus, a state-run newspaper welcomed Pelosi's visit on Monday, 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 Hizbullah and the Palestinian Hamas - whose exiled leaders live in Damascus - as well their role in Lebanon.
Washington has accused Damascus of not doing enough to stop militants from crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border to join the Iraqi insurgency.
A member of the delegation, Tom Lantos, a Democratic representative 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.
Lebanon is currently 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 the prime minister and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a major figure in the Hezbollah-led opposition. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.
On her arrival in the Lebanese capital, Pelosi paid her respects at the grave of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the father of Saad, in downtown Beirut.
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.
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