WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will visit Syria, a country President Bush has shunned as a sponsor of terrorism, despite being asked by the administration not to go.
"In our view, it is not the right time to have these sort of high-profile visitors to Syria," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Friday.
Pelosi toured Jerusalem holy sites Saturday alongside a congressional delegation that included Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress.
The tour was part of the congressional delegation's first full day in Jerusalem, the first stop on their fact-finding trip to the Middle East. The group arrived here Friday.
Flanked by security guards, Pelosi and the delegation toured the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Christians believe Jesus' body was buried, in Jerusalem's Old City. They also visited the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, where Jews have gathered for centuries to pray.
Her second trip to the Middle East, an indication she plans to play a role in foreign policy, is also a direct affront to the administration, which says such diplomatic overtures by lawmakers can do more harm than good.
Pelosi will not be the first member of Congress in recent months to travel to Syria, but as House speaker she is the most senior.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the speaker "should take a step back and think about the message that it sends."
"This is a county that is a state sponsor of terror, one that is trying to disrupt the Senora government in Lebanon and one that is allowing foreign fighters to flow into Iraq from its borders," Perino said.
Syrian President Bashar al-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 just think it's a really bad idea," Perino said.
Pelosi's office did not immediately return a call seeking comment on why she was not heeding administration warnings.
U.S. officials held their first direct, high-level contact with Syrian representatives in years when they met in Baghdad this month with officials from several Middle East countries to discuss Iraq.
McCormack said the State Department tried to discourage Pelosi and the others from visiting Syria but agreed to give their staff a pre-trip briefing. The U.S. Embassy in Damascus also is expected to assist the delegation.
Others traveling with Pelosi were Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Henry Waxman and Tom Lantos of California, Louise Slaughter of New York and Nick Rahall of West Virginia, and Ohio Republican David Hobson. Ellison is the first Muslim member of Congress.
The House has adjourned for a two-week spring break.
The group planned to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and to travel to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Ellison's spokesman, Rick Jauert.
The speaker is expected on Sunday to address the Israeli Knesset, her first address to a foreign government. She will become the highest-ranking American woman to speak before the Israeli parliament, according to her office.
She is expected to discuss "America's commitment to Israel and the challenges facing the two nations in the Middle East," according to a statement.
In late January, Pelosi and a close political ally, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., led a delegation of House members to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and other countries.
The January trip to Baghdad came just days after the president asked Congress in his State of the Union address to give his revised war strategy a chance to work. Bush is sending 21,500 additional combat troops, plus thousands of other support troops, to Iraq in a bid to tamp down sectarian attacks and provide enough security to hasten reconstruction efforts.
Pelosi last week forced legislation through the House that would order all combat troops out of Iraq by September 2008, a measure that resembles legislation approved by the Democratic-run Senate.