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White House criticizes Pelosi's planned Syria visit

Story Highlights

• Speaker plans meeting with Syrian president during Middle East trip
• Syria interfering in Lebanon and Iraq, administration says
• Congressional leader's visit sends wrong message, White House says
• Pelosi to address Israel's Knesset on Sunday; rest of itinerary secret
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House has criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's plans to stop in Syria next week during a Middle East trip that began Friday.

She will be the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria since relations deteriorated between Damascus and Washington.

The United States has accused Syria of aiding the Sunni insurgency in western Iraq with weapons and fighters. Syria also is accused of supporting the militant extremist groups Hezbollah, a Shiite political party and militia, and Hamas.

"We do not encourage and, in fact, we discourage members of Congress to make such visits to Syria," said White House deputy spokeswoman Dana Perino. "This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror, one that is trying to disrupt the (Prime Minister Fouad) Siniora government in Lebanon and one that is allowing foreign fighters to flow through its borders to Iraq.

"I don't know what she is trying to accomplish, and I don't know if anyone in the administration has spoken to her about it," Perino said. "In general, we do discourage such trips."

Responding to a follow-up question, Perino added, "We think that someone should take a step back and think about the message that it sends ... to our allies."

Pelosi is scheduled to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad next weekend while in Damascus, according to Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to the United States. She will be the highest-ranking American to meet with a Syrian president since then-President Clinton met with the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in 1994.

Pelosi is expected to address Israel's Knesset on Sunday. Further details of the trip -- her second to the region as speaker of the House -- were withheld for security reasons, her office said.

A statement from Pelosi's spokesman, Brendan Daly, said: "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."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the administration has advised members of Congress that "it's not the right time to have those high-profile visitors to Syria."

However, McCormack said the State Department provided Pelosi with a briefing, and that the U.S. Embassy in Damascus has said it would help if needed.

Late last year, Democratic U.S. Sens. John Kerry and Christopher Dodd, both senior members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and challenged his government to play a more constructive role in the region.


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