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Kerry defends visit with Syria leader

WASHINGTON --Senator John F. Kerry Friday defended his decision to meet with the president of Syria next week, and said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not try to talk him out of the meeting when they met face-to-face earlier this month to discuss his Middle East trip.

Bush administration officials have said that they warned Kerry that his trip to Syria -- and those of two other Democratic senators -- harms US interests and sends the wrong signal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The administration accuses Syria of fomenting violence in the Middle East.

But speaking with reporters from Jordan via a conference call, Kerry said Rice never advised him against meeting with Assad. He added that the White House is wrong to say that talks between senators and the Syrian leader are inappropriate, since keeping an open dialogue between the countries serves an important purpose.

"She was aware that I was going, and she did not say to me I should not," Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said of the pre-trip meeting with Rice. Their meeting, which came at Kerry's request, took place Dec. 5 at the State Department.

"It's important to engage in some kind of discussion," added Kerry, on a nine-day tour that also includes stops in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and the West Bank.

"It's important to ask questions, to probe, and to get a feel for what the dynamics are, and I'm confident that I can share those with the administration."

Thomas Casey, the State Department's deputy spokesman, said Friday that he could not comment on Rice's private conversations with members of Congress.

On Wednesday, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida met with Assad, becoming the first US senator to visit the Syrian president in nearly two years. The meeting came a week after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group called on President Bush to directly engage Syria and Iran in stabilizing Iraq, something President Bush has resisted.

Kerry and Senator Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, are slated to sit down jointly with Assad for their own meeting Wednesday.

Lawmakers say that Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, is also planning to visit Syria but he has not announced details of his trip.

The Bush administration has assailed the Syria visits.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow on Thursday labeled the meetings "not helpful" and "not appropriate," and said such meetings are handing the Syrian government "a PR victory" by allowing officials to showcase what they portray as improved relations with the West.

Snow said Syrian leaders must stop supporting terrorists in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere before the United States will conduct official direct discussions, a message that can be muddled if senators hold meetings on their own.

"The point is that even lending a further specter of legitimacy to that government undermines the cause of democracy in the region," he said.

Friday, State Department officials seemed to soften their tone on the senators' trips, after criticizing them earlier in the week. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the department generally encourages members of Congress to travel abroad and report back.

"We encourage them to do that to get an appreciation for what the situation is on the ground, and, of course, we hear back from them," he said. "That's a positive thing. We want to understand what their views are."

The United States cut off high-level diplomatic contact with Syria in late 2004, saying that talks with the government had failed to convince Syria to stop the flow of insurgents into Iraq or to stop support for the anti-Israeli militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, which the United States considers terrorist organizations.

Washington withdrew its ambassador to Syria in February 2005, after Syria was implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, although lower-level staff remain in Damascus.

Generally, a member of Congress who wants to travel abroad on official business first must get approval from the relevant committee that he or she serves on, and then asks the administration for help in setting up logistics. The administration does not have authority to stop members of Congress from visiting the places they choose, although officials sometimes limit their mobility for security considerations.

David Schenker, a former adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, said the administration could see some value in having Democrats deliver to Syria the same stern messages they normally hear from Republicans. But he added that high-level visits to Syria have been exploited by the Syrian regime in the past.

"If the message is as strong and consistent, doesn't give any false hope, and isn't spun as a positive visit, then its not entirely unproductive for Democrats to reinforce what the administration is saying," said Schenker, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But I am not entirely convinced that that is how this gets played over there."

Nelson has said he was discouraged by the State Department from traveling to Syria. But a Nelson spokesman said Friday that the State Department chose to send a representative to his meeting with Assad, and said officials from the US Embassy were eager to hear details of the meeting.

"Clearly, the administration uses such trips to gather vital information," said Dan McLaughlin, the Nelson spokesman.

Dodd's aides said the senator and Rice discussed his upcoming trip Friday but declined to describe the nature of the discussions. Dodd has said that in earlier consultations the State Department discouraged him from traveling to Syria, but he decided to go anyway because "it is clear that a policy of isolation has not altered Syria's behavior."

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