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Senator Urges Talks with Syria to Ease Iraq Violence

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who recently returned from a trip to the Middle East where he visited several countries including U.S. foe Syria, discusses how he thinks Iraq's neighbors can help ease the sectarian violence.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    When Democratic Senator Bill Nelson met Syrian President Bashar Assad last week, it was the first time in nearly two years that a high-level U.S. government figure had come calling to Damascus.

    The Bush administration recalled the U.S. ambassador to Syria in February 2005, the day after a massive car bombing in Beirut killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Suspicion quickly fell on Syria, and an ongoing U.N. investigation into the assassination has implicated high-ranking Syrian officials.

    Yet Damascus has recently emerged as a destination for some U.S. senators visiting the region. Democrats John Kerry and Chris Dodd followed Nelson's lead this week, and Republican Arlen Specter is expected next week.

    The idea of renewed engagement with Syria got a major boost this month from the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and Congressman Lee Hamilton. They urged the administration to talk directly to Syria and Iran to help stabilize neighboring Iraq.

    But the Bush administration has publicly rejected that recommendation. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained why in an interview on last night's NewsHour.

    CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: The idea that we somehow have to tell them what to do in order to stabilize Iraq, when they, in fact, are the ones who are destabilizing Iraq, they know what they're doing. They can stop it on any day.

    Perhaps the reason that they would perhaps rather do it by talking to us is that then they can exact a price for cooperation in Iraq, and those are prices we're not willing to pay.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The White House also has criticized senators for going to Damascus, calling the visits "not helpful" and "not appropriate."

    White House spokesman Tony Snow further said that the senators who've met with Assad have only handed him a P.R. victory.

    We go now to one of those senators, Bill Nelson. A Florida Democrat, is a member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, and, beginning in January, of the Intelligence Committee, as well. This was his third meeting with Bashar Assad.