W.House slams planned Syria trip by House speaker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration on Friday condemned plans by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to visit Syria and possibly meet its president, who the United States has accused of helping destabilize the region.

“We don’t think it’s a good idea,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. “This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror, one that is trying to disrupt the Siniora government in Lebanon and one that is allowing foreign fighters to flow into Iraq from its borders.”

The top House Democrat, who is third in line to the presidency, is already in Israel and will meet senior leaders there as well as address the Knesset, or parliament, in coming days.

Pelosi was expected to visit Damascus and Beirut next week.

“As recommended by the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan delegation led by Speaker Pelosi intends to discuss a wide range of security issues affecting the United States and the Middle East with representatives of governments in the region, including Syria,” Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Pelosi, said in a statement.

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.

“I’m not sure what she’s hoping to accomplish there, I know that Assad probably really loves people to come and have a photo opportunity and have tea with him and have discussions about where they’re coming from,” Perino said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“But we do think it’s a really bad idea,” she said.

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.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Damascus typically used such visits as proof to the rest of the world that nothing was wrong with its policies.

“In our view, it is not the right time to have those sorts of high-profile visitors to Syria,” he told reporters.

U.S. and Syrian officials participated in a broader regional meeting in Iraq this month, aimed at stabilizing the country.

Earlier this month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey held talks with a senior Syrian diplomat on how Damascus was coping with a flood of Iraqi refugees, the first such talks in the Syrian capital for more than two years.

Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Sue Pleming.