House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that she raised the issue of Saudi Arabia's lack of female politicians with Saudi government officials on the last stop of her Mideast tour.
Pelosi, the first woman House speaker, said she had not discussed King Abdullah's recent criticism of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, focusing instead on praise for the king's Mideast peace initiative, and efforts to quell conflicts in Somalia and Darfur.
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She met with the king Wednesday and with several members of the Shura Council, an unelected advisory assembly named by the king, on Thursday.
Asked if she had discussed the lack of women on the council, she told reporters, "The issue has been brought up in our discussions with the Saudis on this trip."
Pelosi arrived in Saudi Arabia from Syria, where she defied the White House's Middle East policy by meeting with President Bashar Assad and saying "the road to Damascus is a road to peace." The Bush administration has rejected direct talks with Damascus and criticized Pelosi for her visit.
In an interview with ABC News, Vice President Dick Cheney said Assad has "been isolated and cut off because of his bad behavior, and the unfortunate thing about the speaker's visit is it sort of breaks down that barrier."
Pelosi was met at the Riyadh airport by officials including Abdul-Rahman al-Zamel, the head of the Saudi-American friendship committee at the Shura Council. He described the speaker's visit as a "breakthrough" and praised the inclusion of the first Muslim member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., in her delegation.
Pelosi wore a lavender pantsuit instead of the long black robe, called an abaya, that women, Saudi and non-Saudi, have to wear in the kingdom.
Visiting women dignitaries are not expected to wear the robe, and other female U.S. government officials who have visited Saudi Arabia in the past few years, such as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, did not wear abayas when they met with Saudi officials.
Ihsan Abu-Holeiqa, a member of the council, said the meeting with Pelosi Thursday included discussion of the new difficulties Saudis have in getting U.S. visas, with some waiting four to five months. The lengthy process followed the Sept. 11 attacks carried out by 19 hijackers, 15 of them Saudis.
"We told her there should be some movement on the visa issue because, while we understand the security needs, the situation is unacceptable," said Abu-Holeiqa.
Al-Zamel also praised Pelosi's visit to Syria, saying Syria "is part of this Arab world, part of the issues to be resolved, and to ignore people gets you nowhere."
Pelosi was the highest-ranking American politician to visit Syria since relations began to deteriorate in 2003. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell went to Damascus in May 2003.
Washington accuses Syria of backing Hamas and Hezbollah, two groups it deems terrorist organizations, and fueling Iraq's violence by allowing Sunni insurgents to operate from its territory.
Pelosi's visit heightened tensions between the Bush administration and congressional Democrats, who have stepped up their push for change in U.S. policy in the Mideast and the Iraq war.
But Democrats — and some Republicans — said the lack of dialogue had closed doors to possible progress in resolving Mideast crises.
Pelosi 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.
"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 Assad.
Assad has repeatedly said over the past year that Damascus is willing to negotiate with Israel, insisting the talks must lead to the return of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.
"He's ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel," Pelosi said of the Syrian leader.