your connection to The Boston Globe

Meeting Assad, Pelosi calls visit to Syria the 'road to peace'

Adel Al-Jubeir, Saudi ambassador to Washington, greeted US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Riyadh yesterday after her meeting in Damascus with Syria's President Bashar Assad. (Amr Nabil/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

DAMASCUS -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi challenged the White House on Middle East policy yesterday, meeting with Syria's leader and insisting "the road to Damascus is a road to peace."

That brought a sharp attack from the Bush administration, which has rejected direct talks with Damascus until it changes its ways.

"Unfortunately that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for President Bush's National Security Council. "It's unfortunate that she took this unilateral trip which we only see as counterproductive."

The United States accuses Syria of backing Hamas and Hezbollah, two groups it deems terrorist organizations. It also says Syria is fueling Iraq's violence by allowing Sunni insurgents to operate from its territory and is destabilizing Lebanon's government. Syrian security officials have been implicated in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri in Beirut, though Damascus has denied a role.

Pelosi was the highest-ranking American politician to visit Syria since relations began to deteriorate in 2003. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell went to Damascus in May 2003.

The visit heightened tensions between the administration and congressional Democrats, who have stepped up their push for change in US policy in the Mideast and the Iraq war. But Democrats -- and some Republicans -- say the refusal of dialogue has closed doors to possible progress in resolving Mideast crises.

Pelosi's visit coincided with Iran's announcement that it would free 15 British marines and sailors captured in the Persian Gulf last month. Syrian officials claimed their country, an ally of Iran, played a key role in resolving the standoff.

"We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace," said Pelosi, who met for three hours with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

She said she expressed to Assad "our concern about Syria's connections to Hezbollah and Hamas" and militant fighters slipping across the Syrian border into Iraq.

Pelosi also said she brought a message to Assad from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel was ready for peace talks with Syria. Olmert's office later that this would only be possible if Syria abandoned terror .