WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. official Thursday expressed strong disagreement with the British decision to begin contacts with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, revealing a rare split between the two closely allied nations.
The official said the Obama administration doesn't believe, as the British do, that there are separate military, political and social wings of the Shiite Muslim militia group, and that it is acceptable to deal with the political wing. He expressed revulsion for the group, which is a major part of Lebanon's elected government but officially listed by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization.
"We don't see the differences between the integrated leadership that they see," said the official, who was briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, citing the diplomatic sensitivity of the discussions.
Hezbollah, with support from Iran and Syria, is a dominating presence in the Shiite communities of central and southern Lebanon. It includes a social welfare organization as well as a political party and a military force. Hezbollah has been behind a number of killings, its targets including Americans, and it is a major antagonist of Israel.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said last week that the British government had decided to begin low-level contacts with the group as a means of communicating with an organization that has an important role in the governing of Lebanon. He said the British intended to emphasize in these talks, for example, that it was time to disband militias that exert factional power in the ethnically divided country.
Gordon Duguid, a State Department spokesman, said Friday that the United States was not ready to follow the British example, but he did not criticize the decision.
The Obama administration's readiness to reach out to adversary regimes, such as Syria and Iran, has been a key point of its foreign policy. But the administration has shown no interest in talking to groups on its terrorist registry, such as Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
A State Department official explained that the difference is that governments such as Syria and Iran, though they may support terrorism, can be productively engaged because they can be swayed on the basis of their national interest. Unlike groups branded as terrorist, "they have the interests of states and may respond to interaction," this official said.
The senior U.S. official said the British had discussed their plans with the Bush administration but had not communicated on the subject with the new administration.
The official said he was appalled that Hezbollah has been hanging posters in Lebanon celebrating the slain Imad Mughniyah, an accused terrorist mastermind that Hezbollah has long said was not connected to its organization. Mughniyah, assassinated in Damascus, the Syrian capital, in February 2008, was believed responsible for a long list of attacks and had a U.S. bounty on his head.
The British, who discontinued talks with Hezbollah in 2005, last year added the organization's military wing to their list of designated terrorist groups. Europe as a whole has been divided on the wisdom of engaging with the group. British Embassy officials in Washington could not be immediately reached for comment.
David Schenker, who was a Pentagon specialist on the Middle East during the Bush years, said the British may be positioning themselves to deal with Hezbollah if the group wins elections in June that could put it and its allies in control of the government.
But he said the British move would be "unhelpful" to the Obama administration's efforts to begin collaboration on Mideast issues that could involve Iran, Syria and Lebanon, and to further the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort.
Hezbollah leaders, who have been eager to win international legitimacy, have praised the British action.