Defying objections from the White House, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Wednesday.

Pelosi and other members of Congress first met for separate talks with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa before meeting with Assad for lunch.

After her meeting, Pelosi said she had pressed Assad on his country's "connections to Hezbollah and Hamas."

"We came in friendship, hope and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace," Pelosi told reporters.

She said her delegation also discussed the issue of Sunni militant fighters using the Syrian borders to slip into Iraq.

"These are important issues not only in the fight against terrorism but important priorities for us for peace in the Middle East," she said.

Additionally, Pelosi brought a message to Assad that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was ready to take part in peace talks.

Assad gave assurances that "he's ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel," she said.

Visit under scrutiny

Pelosi, a Democrat from California, rejected criticism about her visit from U.S. President George Bush, saying other members of Congress have already visited the country this month. She said her aim was to initiate dialogue with Assad and his government and to try and change their behaviour.

Bush said Tuesday that Pelosi's trip sends the wrong message because it indicates that Assad's government is part of the international mainstream when it is not.

The Democrats say current U.S. attempts at isolating Syria have failed.

Representative Tom Lantos, part of Pelosi's delegation, said the meeting "reinforced very strongly" the benefits of talking with Syria.

"This is only the beginning of our constructive dialogue with Syria and we hope to build on this visit,'' he told reporters.

Last year, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group suggested that the U.S. engage in talks with both countries.

Pelosi's visit comes as the Democrats remain at odds with the Bush administration over the direction of the Iraq war.

The Democrats, who have control of both the Senate and the House, are only willing to give Bush necessary funding for the war if he agrees to a troop withdrawal deadline. Bush has promised to veto any such war bills that include the clause.

With files from The Associated Press