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State Department official applies to visit Syria

Move signals turnaround in US policy

Ellen Sauerbrey wants to talk with Syria about Iraqi refugees. Ellen Sauerbrey wants to talk with Syria about Iraqi refugees.

WASHINGTON -- A senior State Department official has applied for a visa to travel to Syria to address the problems of Iraqi refugees, further eroding the Bush administration's previous position of not engaging in direct talks with Damascus.

Ellen R. Sauerbrey , the assistant secretary for the bureau of population, refugees, and migration, applied for the visa earlier this week, according to a State Department official, who asked to speak anonymously because he was not authorized to talk publicly on the issue.

The decision for the administration to ask Syria for permission for Sauerbrey's travel comes as US officials have also agreed to hold high-level talks with Iranian and Syrian officials during an upcoming international meeting on Iraq's future. President Bush had previously disallowed any direct talks with officials from the two nations, especially Iran. The United States has diplomatic relations with Syria, including a charge d'affaires at the embassy in Damascus; it has had no diplomatic relations with Iran since the 1979 Islamist revolution.

A State Department spokesman, Peter Eisenhauer , declined to comment on Sauerbrey's plans. Ahmed Salkini , the spokesman for the Syrian Embassy, also declined to comment.

The US official said Sauerbrey was given instructions to talk only about Iraqi refugees, but that still represented a significant turnaround within the senior levels of administration, particularly the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, who had been opposing any outreach to Syria. Cheney and others have argued that senior administration officials should shun Syria because of its long period of hegemony over Lebanon and allowing weapons to flow from Iran into Lebanon to support Hezbollah fighters.

Officials now estimate that 1.8 million to 2 million Iraqis are living in neighboring countries after fleeing the violence in their homeland. Roughly 500,000 to 700,000 Iraqis are believed to have moved to Syria since the beginning of the Iraq war.

"We think that this is very important and commendable," said Dawn Calabia , a senior adviser at Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group, about Sauerbrey's planned trip. "Her visit is a way of saying we appreciate that Syria is permitting so many Iraqis to stay there and give them at least a safe place to be. That's an important gesture."

In a Senate hearing in January, Senator Arlen Specter , a Pennsylvania Republican, argued that the Bush administration should use the Iraqi refugee issue as a way of opening a wider political discussion with Damascus. Specter traveled to Syria in December.

In the hearing, Specter asked Sauerbrey whether she would support a US dialogue with Syria "at least to the extent of dealing with this problem."

At first Sauerbrey sidestepped the question, but later added, "I think that anytime that you can get parties talking to each other that something constructive has a likelihood of coming out of it."

Two weeks ago, the Bush administration agreed to allow about 7,000 Iraqis to come to the United States, after mounting political pressure to address some of the problems created by the war.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, has been one of the strongest voices for allowing more Iraqis to settle in the United States.

Last year, just 202 Iraqi refugees were allowed to move to the United States.

John Donnelly can be reached at