Aides to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday prepared her groundbreaking visit to Syria that has sparked protests from the White House, officials said.
Syria's embassy in Washington hailed the proposed trip as "momentous" and expressed hopes it may change sorely strained relations with the US, even as the White House denounced the visit as "a really bad idea" undermining US policy.
The US State Department tried and failed to convince Pelosi, who will be the highest-ranking US official to visit Syria in years, to cancel the visit, which is expected to take place next week.
It then asked her to carry a "strong message" to Damascus, officials said.
"They should end their support for Palestinian rejectionist groups, take a constructive stance vis-a-vis Lebanon and obviously do what they can to help support Iraq," said US State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack.
Pelosi -- currently in Israel with a delegation that includes Democratic Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the US Congress -- will travel to Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, Ellison spokesman Rick Jauert said.
The White House denounced the visit by Pelosi -- a determined opponent of US President George W. Bush's Iraq war policies -- and warned she may hand Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a symbolic diplomatic victory.
"Assad probably really wants people to come and have a photo opportunity and have tea with him and have discussions about where they're coming from, but we do think that it's a really bad idea," White House Spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Pelosi's office did not return telephone calls seeking comment, but she is due to meet with Syrian leaders on Tuesday, an informed source said.
Last year, a blue-ribbon panel said that improving the situation in Iraq required holding direct high-level talks with Iran and Syria -- a step Bush firmly rebuffed.
"This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror, one that is trying to disrupt the [Fouad] Siniora government in Lebanon and one that is allowing foreign fighters to flow into Iraq from its borders," Perino told reporters.
A spokesman for Syria's embassy in Washington, Ahmed Salkini, said that "this is definitely a momentous visit," but that "it all depends at the end on how it is going to affect the Bush administration's decision-making."
Salkini said that three lawmakers from Bush's Republican party were currently in Syria and added "anyone that wants to come and engage with Syria is more than welcome."
McCormack argued against such trips, saying the Syrians "point to these visits as proof that there's no problem with their behavior and that they are not in fact isolated."
Pelosi's trip comes two weeks after Ellen Sauerbrey, the US assistant secretary of state for refugees and migration, returned from the highest-level US diplomatic visit to Syria in two years.
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