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U.S. lawmaker on fact-finding mission to Syria

From Jomana Karadsheh and Hala Gorani, CNN
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Rep. Kucinich talks to CNN in Syria
  • Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Ohio, is in Lebanon now
  • The lawmaker met with Syria's president
  • Kucinich says he also met with opposition members

Damascus, Syria (CNN) -- U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat who's long been an outspoken anti-war voice in Congress, visited volatile Syria to explore the possibility of a resolution to the violence spiraling across that country.

Kucinich is part of a small delegation on a fact-finding mission to Syria and neighboring Lebanon.

He said in a statement Monday that he pursued the trip because his constituents, in a Cleveland-area district that includes many Arab-Americans, asked him to look into "conditions on the ground" and see if there's a solution to a situation that's "spinning out of control."

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said President Bashar al-Assad met with Kucinich and the accompanying delegation Monday.

Criticism of Kucinich's trip has surfaced among activists because it is seen as legitimizing the al-Assad government.

But in his statement, Kucinich said he was planning to meet with "democracy activists, non-governmental organizations, small business owners, civilians as well as government officials."

Kucinich emphasized Tuesday that he met with people who are "actively involved" in the opposition, as well as government officials.

"I think it's really important for people involved in making policy to hear both sides," Kucinich told CNN.

The lawmaker arrived in Lebanon later Tuesday, where he plans to meet with President Michel Suleiman.

"Peace is not just the absence of war," Kucinich said, according to the statement.

"Peace is a conscious, active pursuit that requires work and communication. My work as a member of Congress requires that I learn firsthand about events in order to better understand policy alternatives for America and other nations."

Human rights activists have said that Syrian security forces have launched a violent crackdown on peaceful protesters since mid-March. The al-Assad regime has been roundly denounced by world powers for its fierce clampdown on protests.

Syria has disputed the criticism and has blamed the bloodshed on "armed groups."

Al-Assad repeated that claim when he met with Kucinich on Monday. SANA reported he "stressed the importance of differentiating between the people's legitimate demands to which the State responded through issuing decrees and laws and the organized armed groups which utilized these demands to create chaos and destabilize the country."

The news agency said al-Assad "reviewed the recent events taking place in Syria and the advanced steps achieved in the comprehensive reform program."

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford did not attend Kucinich's meeting with al-Assad and Kucinich didn't carry any messages from the Obama administration.

Kucinich had only given the embassy "a few hours" notice before coming to Syria, but did seek an embassy briefing before his meetings in Damascus, she said.

Nuland said that Kucinich was exercising his right as a member of Congress to travel abroad. She would not comment on his trip. Ford has met with some "senior advisers" to al-Assad who have the president's ear and can get messages to him, Nuland said, but declined to mention any names.

CNN's Joe Sterling and Elise Labott contributed to this report