BEIRUT // In a change of policy with major repercussions for diplomacy in Lebanon, the British foreign ministry yesterday confirmed it would open relations with the political wing of the Shiite militant group Hizbollah. "We have reconsidered our position on no contact with Hizbollah," the Foreign Office said in a statement released to reporters yesterday morning. "In light of more positive recent political developments in Lebanon, including the formation of the national unity government in which Hizbollah are participating, we are exploring certain contacts at an official level with Hizbollah's political wing, including MPs." Although Hizbollah has long contended that a firewall separates its political operations - known as Hizbollah, or "the Party of God" - and its military wing called "The Islamic Resistance of Lebanon", the United States, Israel and most European Union countries have classified the entire group as a terrorist organisation. Hizbollah was formed in the 1980s with Iranian support as a military unit to liberate the primarily Shiite areas of south Lebanon from Israel, which militarily occupied the area between 1978 to 2000. Over time, the military focus of the group has been complemented by the formation of a political wing, which now commands enormous political power with 11 members of parliament and a veto-capable minority in Lebanon's unity government. For Britain to recognise Hizbollah's political wing marks a significant change in policy that would seem to recognise the difference between armed resistance, often characterised by the west as "terrorism", and the significant political role played by Hizbollah in Lebanon and its ally Hamas in the Palestinian territories. It is a remarkable turnaround for the group, which most of the western world condemned for a violent takeover of West Beirut in May as a nearly two-year political standoff between the pro-western government and the Hizbollah-led opposition exploded into direct clashes between Sunni supporters of the government and Shiite supporters of Hizbollah and its allies. Denounced at the time as a "coup" by the west, that spasm of violence eventually drove both sides into a national unity government. However, it is as if Hizbollah had lost whatever international credibility it had developed from its powerful political and social patronage programmes. But as Lebanon stabilised in the aftermath of the violence - sending the country into the longest period of peace since the killing of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, it appears that Hizbollah's ability to balance violence and politics is earning it new respect. "Anyone wanting to do business with Lebanon needs to recognise the role of 'The Resistance'," said one pro-western legislator, who asked to not be identified supporting his political enemies. "Their role and power in Lebanon cannot be ignored. We hope this means the Americans will follow suit and also loosen the rules for dealing with our government." The US has long refused any ties or meetings with Hizbollah based on the actions of its military wing, which include alleged attacks on American targets in the 1980s and Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide since. But as the new administration expands its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict as a negotiator, few experts think that ignoring Hamas and Hizbollah can remain a viable policy in light of their political and military power. The British Embassy in Beirut refused to comment, but diplomatic sources in the Lebanese capital said the British move was in response to pressure from members of its diplomatic corps, who have argued the merits of engaging the group for years. The calm that followed last year's military takeover and the relative stability of the unity government that resulted from the clashes helped make these claims more credible, according to Beirut-based diplomats. "How can you want to help Lebanon and not talk to the single most powerful force in the country," said one Hizbollah political cadre member. "But there's little reason to believe Obama will have different policies." Hizbollah's second-in-command, Sheikh Naim Qassem, last weekend bragged about the group's new-found mainstream credibility in a speech to supporters in the group's Bekaa Valley stronghold. Foreign diplomats are "standing in line to talk to Hizbollah and, except for the US and Israel, we have good relations with all", he said. email@example.com
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