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Originally published Wednesday, February 11, 2009 at 5:05 PM

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Kerry to travel to Syria to meet Assad

Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is planning to travel to Syria next week, where he will meet with President Bashar Assad.

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON —

Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is planning to travel to Syria next week, where he will meet with President Bashar Assad.

The trip, confirmed by a spokesman for the Massachusetts Democrat, comes as President Barack Obama looks for a way to repair the U.S. image abroad and engage regimes hostile to U.S. policies.

Syrian-U.S. relations deteriorated sharply during former President George W. Bush's administration, which accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross its border into Iraq. Syria denied doing so, while saying it was impossible to control its extensive desert border with Iraq.

Kerry spokesman Frederick Jones said Wednesday that the senator will be part of a congressional delegation headed to the Middle East, stopping in both Israel and Syria. Jones called the meeting planned between Kerry and Assad "part of a continuing dialogue he's had with the Syrian government."

Jones said the Obama administration is aware of Kerry's plans, and the State Department is helping arrange the trip.

Kerry traveled to Syria in late 2006 where he said he told Assad he had serious concerns about the flow of "money, weapons and terrorists" through the country into Iraq and Lebanon. Other senators, including Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, made similar trips despite the Bush administration saying such visits were inappropriate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also met with Assad in a much-publicized 2007 trip.

Then-Vice President Dick Cheney denounced her visit as unhelpful, saying "we don't need 535 secretaries of state," a reference to the number of lawmakers in Congress.

Assad said in remarks broadcast last month that he wants a dialogue with the United States but there should be no preconditions by the Obama administration.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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