US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday wrapped up a two-day official visit to Syria which she described as "very productive" while the White House criticized it for undermining the US efforts to isolate the Arab country.
Pelosi, a staunch critic of US President George W. Bush's Iraq policy, held talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his deputy Farouk al-Shara and Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem earlier in the day.
She told reporters after the meetings that the talks have so far been "very productive" and she was "determined that the road to Damascus would be the path to peace."
The leading US Democrat said she had conveyed an Israeli message for peace talks with Syria and received assurances from Assad that Syria was ready to engage in peace talks with Israel.
"We expressed our interest in using our good offices in promoting peace between Israel and Syria," said Pelosi, the highest-level US politician to visit Damascus in years.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem confirmed at a press conference later that Syria was ready to resume peace talks with arch-foe Israel according to an Arab peace initiative that was reactivated at the 19th Arab summit in Saudi capital Riyadh last week.
According to the official SANA news agency, Assad highlighted the importance of "direct dialogue" with the United States in his meeting with Pelosi. He also told the delegation that Syria has adopted the Arab peace initiative and Syria's commitment to peace was a "strategic option."
The initiative, proposed by Saudi Arabia and adopted in Beirut Arab summit in 2002, calls for a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and the Arab states.
The two sides also discussed the crises in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, SANA reported.
Assad said a comprehensive national reconciliation and a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq were key to stability in the war-torn country while accordance among the Lebanese is the basic factor to tackle the main issues in Lebanon, the report added.
Pelosi told reporters that the US delegation raised its concerns about Syria's connection to the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas and the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and the infiltrations into Iraq.
She also voiced "concerns about the soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah and Hamas", saying that "these are not only important issues in the fight against terrorism but also important priorities for peace in the Middle East."
Syria supports Hezbollah and Hamas, groups Washington labels as terror organizations. Damascus insists that Hamas is a legitimate resistant movement and Hezbollah a regular Lebanese political party.
Meanwhile, Pelosi asserted that her trip was to follow up on the recommendations of the bipartisan US Iraq Study Group which had urged the Bush administration to engage in talks with Syria and Iran over Iraq.
The White House, which has largely ignored the suggestion, was annoyed at Pelosi's visit to Damascus, rebuking it as a "really bad idea."
On the contrary, Pelosi's trip was hailed by Syrian official media as opening a door for necessary dialogue between the two countries to discuss regional issues and "beneficial to everyone."
But the Syrian media also stayed prudent on the "sudden US openness" against the backdrop of a long-strained relation.
The government Tishrin daily noted that no matter how important the trip was, it would not be able to erase all the obstacles impeding the restoration of the Syrian-American ties, or remove the dark clouds overshadowing these ties and preventing mutual understanding and dialogue.
Syrian ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha also said in an interview with the official al-Baath paper that Syria was "wary of the sudden US openness" and would respond cautiously.
Syria would not hurriedly offer concessions which it refused to offer under much greater pressure from the US in the past, he observed, adding that Syria would take a step forward every time the Americans took one.
US-Syrian ties have been tense since 2003 as Syria strongly objected the US invasion of Iraq and blamed the US-led occupation for the turbulences in the country ever after.
The US accused Damascus of doing little to stop militants and weapons from crossing into Iraq and destabilize situation there.
Washington withdrew its ambassador to Damascus for Syria's alleged role in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 and had since refused high-level contacts with Damascus.
(Xinhua News Agency April 5, 2007)