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Pelosi visits Saudi version of legislature

April 6th, 2007 8:15 pm by Associated Press



RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Saudi Arabia's unelected advisory council Thursday, the closest thing in the kingdom to a legislature, where she tried out her counterpart's chair - a privilege no Saudi woman can have because women cannot become legislators.


Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House, said she raised the issue of Saudi Arabia's lack of female politicians with Saudi government officials on the last stop of her Mideast tour, but she refrained from criticizing the kingdom over it.


"It's a nice view from here," Pelosi said as she sat in the chair, facing the ornate chamber with its deep blue and yellow chairs and gilded ironwork. "This chair is very comfortable."


U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who was traveling with Pelosi, looked at the gavel in front of her and quipped: "It's a small gavel, Madame Speaker. You may want to wield it."


As Pelosi toured the ornate chamber, controversy over her Wednesday talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad continued. Vice President Dick Cheney said it was "bad behavior on her part" that she gave Assad a message from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which Israel later backed away from.


"It was a non-statement, non-sensical statement and didn't make any sense at all - that she would suggest that those talks could go forward as long as the Syrians conducted themselves as a prime state sponsor of terror," Cheney said in an interview on Rush Limbaugh's radio program.


After her talks with Assad in Damascus, Pelosi said she had delivered a message from Olmert that Israel was ready for peace talks. Assad had replied that "he's ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel," Pelosi said Wednesday.


Olmert's office later issued a statement saying such talks could take place only if Syria stopped assisting terror groups. Before leaving Israel, Pelosi had said she would tell the Syrians that Israel would make talks conditional on their cutting ties to Palestinian militants.


Pelosi's spokesman Nadeam Elshami said the speaker made it clear to Assad that if he wants peace with Israel, then he should stop support for Hezbollah and Hamas and prevent insurgents from crossing into Iraq.


Assad has repeatedly said he wants peace talks with Israel, seeking a return of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. But efforts to bring new talks have not gotten off the ground because of the issue of Damascus' support for the militants.


Washington accuses Syria of backing Hamas and Hezbollah, two groups it deems terrorist organizations, and fueling Iraq's violence by allowing Sunni insurgents to operate from its territory.


In Riyadh on Thursday, sidestepped a question on how she felt about the absence of female Saudi council members, saying: "I am very pleased that after 200-plus years in the U.S. we finally have a speaker. It took us a long time."


Asked if she raised the issue at Thursday's meeting with the council members, she said: "The issue has been brought up in our discussions with the Saudis on this trip."


The Majlis al-Shura, or Consultative Council, was expanded and given more powers in 1992 as a gesture toward forming a legislature. Its 150 members are chosen by the king and advise him, and the body has the power to propose new laws for the government's approval.


Saudi King Abdullah has spoken of reform in this key U.S. ally, but change has been slow and limited. The kingdom, ruled by the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, held its first elections in 2005, choosing local councils. Women were barred from voting or running.


Pelosi arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, meeting with Abdullah at his farm outside Riyadh and discussed at length the Arab peace initiative, which was proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and was relaunched at a summit in Riyadh last week.


The initiative offers Israel peace with all Arab states if it withdraws from lands seized in 1967 and allows the creation of a Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem. Israel has said it would only accept the proposal if some changes were made - particularly over the issue of refugees - but Arab nations have said Israel should accept it as a basis for negotiations. "I explained to him that this can be a very important and historic proposal if he is prepared for a discussion and a dialogue and not a presentation on a take-it-or-leave-it basis," Lantos told the Associated Press. "His reaction was very positive." Lantos also said he brought up his legislation to create an international nuclear fuel bank that would make it unnecessary for any nation, including Iran, to develop uranium enrichment because nuclear fuel would be available. Concerned by Iran's program, Saudi Arabia and Gulf states have expressed an interest in developing nuclear energy programs. Pelosi was welcomed at the Shura council by its head, Sheik Saleh bin Humaid, who is also the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. He placed his right hand on his chest in a traditional Arab greeting, since conservative Islamic clerics don't shake hands with women, and she returned the greeting in a similar manner. During her meetings, Pelosi did not wear the long black robe, or abaya, and headscarf that Saudi and non-Saudi women have to wear in the kingdom. Visiting female dignitaries are not expected to wear it. Ihsan Abu-Holeiqa, a member of the council, said the meeting with Pelosi included discussion of the difficulties Saudis have in getting U.S. visas since the Sept. 11 attacks - which were carried out by 19 hijackers, 15 of them Saudis. "We told her there should be some movement on the visa issue because, while we understand the security needs, the situation is unacceptable," said Abu-Holeiqa. Pelosi leaves Saudi Arabia for Washington early Friday.

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