VIDEO - US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad assured her of his willingness to engage in peace talks with Israel. She said she and her accompanying members of Congress raised with Assad their concern about the Israeli soldiers kidnapped by the Lebanese militant group Hizbullah and the Palestinian group Hamas. Wednesday for talks criticized by the White House as undermining American efforts to isolate the hard-line Arab country. The White House has criticized Pelosi's trip to Syria as undermining American efforts to isolate the hard-line Arab country. The California Democrat and accompanying members of Congress began their day by holding separate talks with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa and then met Assad, who hosted them for lunch after their talks. Pelosi's visit to Syria was the latest challenge to the White House by congressional Democrats, who are taking a more assertive role in influencing policy in the Middle East and the Iraq war. Bush has said Pelosi's trip signals that the Assad government is part of the international mainstream when it is not. The United States says Syria allows Iraqi Sunni insurgents to operate from its territory, backs the Hezbollah and Hamas militant groups and is trying to destabilize the Lebanese government. Syria denies the allegations. "A lot of people have gone to see President Assad ... and yet we haven't seen action. He hasn't responded," he told reporters soon after she arrived in Damascus Tuesday. "Sending delegations doesn't work. It's simply been counterproductive." Pelosi did not comment on Bush's remarks but went for a stroll in the Old City district of Damascus, where she mingled with Syrians in a market. Wearing a flowered head scarf and a black abaya robe, Pelosi visited the 8th-century Omayyad Mosque. She made the sign of the cross in front of an elaborate tomb which is said to contain the head of John the Baptist. About 10 percent of Syria's 18 million people are Christian. At the nearby outdoor Bazouriyeh market, Syrians crowded around, offering her dried figs and nuts and chatting with her. She bought some coconut sweets and looked at jewelry and carpets. On Tuesday night, Pelosi met Syrian human rights activists, businessmen and religious leaders at the US ambassador's residence. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem was quoted Wednesday as saying that Pelosi and other members of Congress were "welcome" in Syria. "Better late than never," he told the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Anba in an interview. He said the visits were taking place because Americans and Europeans had realized that their policy of trying to isolate Syria had failed. However, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, was quoted as saying Syria was "wary of the sudden US openness" and would respond cautiously. "Syria will not hurriedly offer concessions when it refused to offer them under much greater pressure from the United States in the past," he said in an interview with the al-Baath newspaper, the mouthpiece of the ruling party. "Syria will take a step forward every time the Americans take one," he added. Democrats have argued that the US should engage its top rivals in the Mideast — Iran and Syria — to make headway in easing crises in Iraq, Lebanon and the Israeli-Arab peace process. Last year, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended talks with the two countries. Bush rejected the recommendations. But in February, the US joined a gathering of regional diplomats in Baghdad that included Iran and Syria for talks on Iraq. 'No illusions but great hope' Visiting neighboring Lebanon on Monday, Pelosi shrugged off White House criticism of her trip to Syria, noting that Republican lawmakers met Assad on Sunday without comment from the Bush administration. She said she hoped to rebuild lost confidence between Washington and Damascus and would tell Syrian leaders that Israel will talk peace with them only if Syria stops supporting Palestinian militants. She said she also would raise Syria's roles in Iraq and Lebanon and their support for the Hezbollah militant group. "We have no illusions but we have great hope," said Pelosi, who met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah earlier Tuesday. Relations between the US and Syria reached a low point in early 2005 when Washington withdrew its ambassador to Damascus to protest the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese blamed Syria — which had troops in Lebanon at the time — for the assassination. Damascus denied involvement. Washington has since succeeded in largely isolating Damascus, with its European and Arab allies shunning Assad. The last high-ranking US official to visit Syria was then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in January 2005. The isolation, however, has begun to crumble in recent months, with visits by US lawmakers and some European officials.