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Bush administration says senator's trip to Damascus is a mistake

WASHINGTON—The White House on Thursday escalated its criticism of Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson's defiant diplomacy to Syria as a parade of other senators prepared to meet with the president of the country.

At a press briefing, White House spokesman Tony Snow repeated his contention that the Nelson's trip was "not helpful" and "not appropriate." He charged that "lending a further specter of legitimacy to that government undermines the cause of democracy in the region."

President Bush has accused Syria of backing the insurgents now fighting in Iraq and trying to topple the U.S.-backed government of Lebanon, and administration officials have begun meeting with exiled opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Nelson, on what he described as a fact-finding tour of the Middle East, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that he met for an hour with Assad, saying the Syrian president "clearly indicated the willingness to cooperate" with the U.S. or Iraqi army to secure the border between the two countries. Nelson said he viewed the talks as a "crack in the door" for discussions to continue, but cautioned that he viewed the meeting "with realism, not optimism."

A spokesman for Nelson noted Thursday that senators "meet with heads of states all the time" and called Snow's criticism "the same-old, tired, mean-spirited partisan politics.

"Instead of launching partisan attacks, they should be doing what they recently promised to do: conduct business in a bipartisan way," said Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin. "That's the only way we're going to find a solution in Iraq.

Though the Iraq Study Group is recommending a stepped-up diplomatic effort involving Syria and Iran to stem the violence in neighboring Iraq, the White House has expressed reluctance, pointing to Syria's backing of terrorist groups and its record of meddling in Lebanon.

Snow insisted the visits were not undermining the president's stance. But he said the meeting at the presidential palace, along with planned visits by Senators John Kerry, D-Mass., Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., could send confusing messages about the U.S. stance toward the country.

"The United States has a clear position, and you want to make sure that you're sending a clear message, and not mixed messages, to the Syrians about the fact that they have obligations," Snow said, noting that the U.S. insists Syria "stop serving as headquarters" for terrorist groups. "They would love for us to talk with them. But they've got to do something. We want to make sure that they understand that just because they have visitors does not mean that the position of the United States government has changed."

Nelson acknowledged Wednesday that the State Department was not happy with his decision to meet with Assad, but said he had a "constitutional role as a member of Congress" to meet with the president.

McLaughlin noted that Nelson was not negotiating, "which is the president's job," but gathering facts to report back to Congress. Nelson was recently named to the Senate Intelligence Committee and is already a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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