DAMASCUS, SYRIA, AND BEIRUT — The Obama administration is "comfortable" with the British government's attempts to engage Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed group that the U.S. labels a terrorist organization, a senior British diplomat asserts.
Bill Rammell, Britain's minister of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs, said in a brief interview late last week in Damascus that despite protests to the contrary, the new U.S. administration does not object to the fledgling contacts with the political wing of the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim group, which also has a heavily armed militia.
Britain likens the attempt to engage Hezbollah, launched quietly this year, to its outreach to political leaders of the Irish Republican Army -- a move that helped quell the Northern Ireland conflict.
"We have a different approach on this issue at the moment with the United States," he said. "But it's not an issue of disagreement in intentions. The feedback we had on Lebanon is that the Americans are comfortable with us doing things differently than they are."
Senior U.S. officials have privately mocked and publicly rejected the British decision. "Our position on Hezbollah remains unchanged," Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs, told lawmakers last month. "We see no distinction between the leadership and funding of the group's terrorist, military, political and social wings."
Hezbollah, formed in the early 1980s, is a vast social, political and military organization that has emerged as one of the world's most powerful non-state entities. It runs huge swaths of Lebanon, including its south Beirut stronghold, and maintains its own networks of schools, charities and social services as well as a military telecommunications system.
Hezbollah also maintains a formidable arsenal of rockets and a militia that fought its archenemy, Israel, to a standstill in a 2006 war that continues to reverberate throughout the Middle East.
Another British diplomat said Bush administration officials harshly criticized the idea of approaching Hezbollah last year. They worried "it would be seen as a policy coordinated with the U.S. government," the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Although the Obama administration rejects the British approach, Rammell said initial U.S. alarm has given way to curiosity and that there is "no antagonism" between the two allies over the issue. Rammell's areas of responsibility include the Middle East, Afghanistan and North America.
France, with its deep historical and cultural ties to Lebanon, has long maintained relations with Hezbollah. Rammell said the British attempt to engage Hezbollah would proceed incrementally, in an attempt at "testing the waters."
In a meeting last week with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, Rammell also said London was ready to engage with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which has its political headquarters in Damascus, Syria, if it renounced violence.
"I would like to talk to Hamas, but we need change before engaging in that position," he said at the meeting.
He added that Hezbollah must also reject violence before any dialogue could broaden.
Rammell, who ended a two-day visit to Syria on Thursday, said the West must acknowledge what he described as "positive changes" that have taken place in Lebanon over the last few months, including the formation of a unity government and the appointment of a consensus president supported by U.S.-backed political groups and the Hezbollah-led camp.
Rammell noted Hezbollah's increased involvement in Lebanon's ordinary political life, with "Hezbollah [lawmakers] sitting side by side with their opponents" in the legislative chamber.
Haidar is a special correspondent.