DAMASCUS (Reuters) - U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, on a visit to Syria opposed by the White House, said on Wednesday President Bashar al-Assad was ready to hold peace talks with Israel.
But her remark that Israel was prepared to negotiate with Damascus prompted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office to underline the Jewish state’s preconditions for such talks.
Democrat Pelosi is the most senior U.S. official to visit Syria in more than two years.
Republican President George W. Bush had said her visit sent mixed signals to Syria. A spokesman for the White House National Security Council called it “counterproductive” on Wednesday.
“We were very pleased with the reassurances we received from the president (Assad) that he was ready to resume the peace process. He was ready to engage in negotiations (for) peace with Israel,” Pelosi said.
“(Our) meeting with the president enabled us to communicate a message from prime minister Olmert that Israel was ready to engage in peace talks as well,” Pelosi, the third most senior official in Washington, told reporters after talks with Assad.
An Israeli government official said that was not the message Olmert had asked Pelosi earlier this week to convey to Assad, who seeks the return of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
“The prime minister said Israel is interested in peace with Syria, but Syria would first have to abandon the path of terror and providing support for terrorist groups,” the official said, in reference to Palestinian group Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
“Comments (Olmert) made to the speaker of the House did not represent any change in a policy Israel has expressed to all international figures dealing with the (Syrian) issue,” a statement from Olmert’s office said.
Washington accuses Damascus of sponsoring terrorism and estimates up to 90 percent of suicide bombers in Iraq enter from Syria. Syria says it is trying to stop the flow.
Assad said Syria was ready to resume talks with Israel based on an Arab peace plan calling for Israeli withdrawal from all Arab land for peace, adopted at a summit last month.
“Syria has adopted the Arab initiative. It’s strategic choice is peace,” the official news agency quoted Assad as telling Pelosi.
Peace talks between Syria and Israel, centered on normal ties in return for the Golan Heights, collapsed in 2000.
Pelosi said it was important Syria used its influence with Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“We called to the attention of the president our concern about fighters crossing the Iraq-Syria border to the detriment of the Iraqi people and our soldiers,” said Pelosi.
Syrian officials said Damascus wants to help Washington achieve an “honorable withdrawal” from Iraq but in return the United States must press Israel to return the Golan Heights.
“The United States has been working in multilateral forums with countries in the region, countries in Europe, to send a message to the Syrians that they need to change their behavior, and it’s unfortunate that she (Pelosi) took this unilateral trip which we only see as counterproductive,” White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters.
The United States withdrew its ambassador from Syria shortly after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Rafik al-Hariri in February 2005. Many Lebanese blame Syria for the killing. Damascus denies involvement.
Pelosi arrived in Saudi Arabia later on Wednesday. She is set to visit the unelected quasi-parliament on Thursday after visiting King Abdullah’s ranch outside Riyadh on Wednesday night, Saudi and U.S. officials said.
Normally close U.S.-Saudi relations suffered a rift last week when King Abdullah termed the U.S. occupation in Iraq as “illegitimate” in a speech to the Arab summit in Riyadh.
Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Tom Perry in Beirut and Andrew Hammond in Riyadh