Pelosi tells Assad: Israel ready to talk

US House speaker's Syria visit angers Bush; stresses kidnapped soldiers issue.

pelosi assad damascus (photo credit: AP)
pelosi assad damascus
(photo credit: AP)
Syrian President Bashar Assad is willing to resume peace talks with Israel, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday shortly after talks with the leader. Pelosi said she and other members of her congressional delegation raised with Assad their concern about terrorists crossing from Syria into Iraq, as well as their concern for the IDF soldiers kidnapped by the Lebanese Hizbullah group and the Palestinian Hamas. The Californian Democrat spoke to reporters shortly after talks with Assad at the end of a two-day visit to Syria, which the White House has criticized as undermining American efforts to isolate the hard-line Arab country. She said the delegation gave the Syrian leader a message from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the essence of which was that Israel was ready to hold peace talks with Syria. She did not say more about the message, but Israel has previously made such talks conditional on Syria's cutting off its support for hardline Palestinian groups and Hizbullah. "We were very pleased with the assurances we received from the president that he was ready to resume the peace process. He's ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel," Pelosi said. She said the delegation conveyed to Assad "the importance of Syria's role with Hamas in promoting peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis." She did not reveal how Assad responded to the delegation's message on Hamas and Hizbullah. Syria hosts the exiled leadership of Hamas, as well as other Palestinian radical groups, and is a major patron of Hizbullah. But while the United States regards Hamas and Hizbullah as terrorist groups, Syria insists that Hamas is a legitimate resistance movement working for Palestinian freedom and Hizbullah 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. US President George W. Bush has said Pelosi's trip signals that the Assad government is part of the international mainstream when it is not. The United States says Syria allows Iraqi Sunni insurgents to operate from its territory, backs the Hizbullah and Hamas, and is trying to destabilize the Lebanese government. Syria denies the allegations. "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. Syria has praised Pelosi for defying the White House. The state-run Syria Times called her a "brave lady" and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem was quoted as saying Pelosi and other members of Congress were "welcome" in Syria. Relations between the US 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 US official to visit Syria was then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in January 2005.