DAMASCUS, Syria — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi toured Damascus on Tuesday, the highest-ranking American politician to visit Syria since relations began to deteriorate four years ago. President Bush criticized the trip, saying it sends mixed signals to President Bashar Assad.
The United States accuses Syria of interfering in Iraq and Lebanon and sponsoring terrorists — charges Syria denies. The Bush administration has resisted calls to open direct talks with Damascus on resolving the countries’ disputes.
Pelosi, D-Calif., is scheduled to meet Assad and other Syrian officials on Wednesday. She made no comment on arrival and headed for the Old City of Damascus where she toured the 8th-century Omayyad Mosque.
Pelosi draped a scarf over her head as she entered the historic mosque and stopped at a tomb inside said to contain the head of St. John the Baptist. She made the sign of the cross in front of the tomb. About 10 percent of Syria’s 18 million people are Christian.
In the nearby outdoor Bazouriyeh market, she chatted with Syrians, who offered her dates, in front of shops selling olive oil soaps, spices and herbs. At one point, she bought some coconut sweets and looked at Syrian carpets.
A White House spokeswoman had described Pelosi’s visit to Syria as a “really bad idea” and President Bush also questioned the trip at a news conference on Tuesday.
“We have made it clear to high-ranking officials, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, that going to Syria sends mixed signals,” he told reporters in the Rose Garden of the White House.
“Photo opportunities and-or meetings with Assad lead the Assad government to believe they’re part of the mainstream of the international community,” the president said.
No comment from Damascus
Pelosi shrugged off White House criticism of her visit, saying in Lebanon on Monday that it was an “excellent idea” for her and other lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike — to go to there. “We have no illusions but great hopes” for her talks with Assad, Pelosi said.
“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 Monday, referring to the Sunday meeting of Reps. Frank Wolf, Joe Pitts and Robert Aderholt with Assad in Damascus.
“I think that it was an excellent idea for them to go,” Pelosi said. “And I think it’s an excellent idea for us to go, as well.”
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While discouraging visits by U.S. officials, the administration is talking to Syria as part of international conferences on Iraq. The first was held last month in Baghdad. Another, to include foreign ministers, was expected to be held sometime this month in the region.
Talks with Abbas in Ramallah
Earlier Tuesday, Pelosi held talks with Mahmoud Abbas in his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where the Palestinian president told her he wanted to use his meetings with the Israeli prime minister as an avenue for restarting peace talks.
Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged during a visit last month by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to hold meetings every two weeks. No dates have so far been announced.
Olmert has said he will not talk to Abbas about ingredients of a final peace deal, such as the borders of a future Palestinian state, until Palestinians stop firing rockets into Israel from Gaza and release an Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza for the past nine months.
Abbas has pushed for the meetings to focus on the thorny issues underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a stance he reiterated Sunday with Pelosi.
“The president stressed that ... without a political horizon, there can be no peaceful coexistence,” Abbas’ aide Rafik Husseini said.
Palestinian media boycott
Palestinian media crews boycotted Tuesday’s meeting as a protest against the Palestinian government’s failure to free a BBC journalist kidnapped in Gaza on March 12.
The BBC says it has received no word on the whereabouts or condition of Alan Johnston, 44. No demands have been issued by the kidnappers. Johnston has been held longer than any of the other 11 journalists kidnapped in Gaza over the past three years. All of the previous hostages were released unharmed, most within days.
Pelosi is traveling with a delegation of U.S. lawmakers, including the first Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison, D-Minn.
Pelosi has said she will tell Syrian leaders that Israel will talk peace with them only if Syria stops supporting Palestinian militants. She has said she will also talk to the Syrians about Iraq, their role in neighboring Lebanon and their support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants.
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