Israeli acting president defends Pelosi Syria trip

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s acting president defended on Sunday U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s planned visit to Syria, a trip the White House described as a bad idea.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shakes hands with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi during their meeting in Jerusalem April 1, 2007. REUTERS/Moshe Milner/GPO/Handout

Pelosi, speaking at a dinner hosted by Acting President Dalia Itzik, said she would raise with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the issue of three captive Israeli soldiers, two held by Lebanon’s Hezbollah group and one by Palestinian militants.

“Your expected visit to Damascus has naturally touched off a political debate in your country, and of course, here,” Itzik said in televised remarks.

“I believe in your worthy intentions. Perhaps a step, seen as unpopular at this stage ... will clarify to the Syrian people and leadership they must abandon the axis of evil (and) stop supporting terrorism and giving shelter to (terrorist) headquarters,” said Itzik, a member of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s centrist Kadima party.

The White House on Friday condemned Pelosi’s plans to visit Syria this week and meet Assad, who the United States has accused of helping destabilize the region.

“We don’t think it’s a good idea,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, calling Syria a supporter of terrorism and accusing it of trying to disrupt the Lebanese government and allowing foreign fighters to pass through its borders to Iraq.

Pelosi, who met Olmert earlier in the day, held aloft during her dinner speech in parliament replicas of the dog-tags of the three captive soldiers.

“They (the dog-tags) are in my office, I carry them with me today, with the promise that we must never rest until they are all safely at home. And yes, I will mention this to the president of Syria,” said Pelosi, the top House Democrat.

Hezbollah guerrillas, in a cross-border raid in July, seized two Israeli soldiers on the Lebanon frontier, triggering a 34-day war with Israel. Palestinian militants, tunneling under the border from Gaza, took a soldier captive last June.

Despite the Bush administration opposition, the State Department said it had briefed Pelosi’s staff and was prepared to help on the ground in Syria.

A handful of Republican and Democratic lawmakers visited Damascus and met Assad in December after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended a stepped-up diplomatic effort involving Syria and Iran to help calm the violence in Iraq.

The Bush administration has resisted that recommendation and condemned the lawmakers’ visits.

Syria has denied it allows insurgents to cross over from its territory into Iraq and argues Iraq and the United States have not done enough to police the border.