U.S. House Members Talk Diplomacy With Syria's Bashar Assad

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U.S. House members meeting with President Bashar Assad Sunday said they believed there was an opportunity for dialogue with the Syrian leadership.

The U.S. House members, who included Virginia Republican Frank Wolf, Pennsylvania Republican Joe Pitts and Alabama Republican Robert Aderholt, also said they had raised with Syrian officials the issue of stopping the alleged flow of foreign fighters from Syria to Iraq.

In a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, the congressmen said they had talked about "ending support for Hezbollah and Hamas, recognizing Israel's right to exist in peace and security, and ceasing interference in Lebanon."

"We came because we believe there is an opportunity for dialogue," the statement said. "We are following in the lead of Ronald Reagan, who reached out to the Soviets during the Cold War," it added.

Syria's official news agency said Assad discussed U.S.-Syria relations and the latest developments in the Middle East with the representatives.

Despite the poor relationship between the two countries stemming from disagreements over Iraq and suspected Syrian support for militant groups, there have been recent calls in the U.S. to engage Syria.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan U.S. commission initially proposed by Wolf recommended the Bush administration launch new diplomatic initiatives with both Syria and Iran, something it has refused to do.

The congressional delegation met earlier in the day with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who expressed Syria's desire to bring security and stability to the Middle East and called for dialogue with the U.S., SANA reported.

He said discussions between the two countries could produce "common stands conducive to putting an end to current crises in the region."

The visit came ahead of one on Tuesday by the leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking politician to visit Damascus since relations began souring in 2003.

Pelosi, heading a congressional delegation, is on a fact-finding trip to the Middle East that includes visits to Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Her trip comes as the Democratic majority in Congress is locked in a battle with President George W. Bush over strategy in Iraq.

Washington and Damascus have not been on friendly terms in recent years. Washington has accused Syria of allowing Islamic militants to cross its border into Iraq, supporting Palestinian militants and funneling arms to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Relations deteriorated significantly in early 2005 when Washington withdrew its Syrian ambassador to protest the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a Beirut truck bombing that his supporters blamed on Syria. Syria has denied involvement.

The U.S. delegation traveled to Jordan after their talks with Syrian officials.