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US discontent over UK links with Hizbollah

A senior US official says he is unhappy with a British decision to open low-level contact with Lebanese group Hizbollah.

A senior US official said he was unhappy with a British decision to open low-level contact with Hizbollah and suggested London only indirectly informed the new administration ahead of time. The remarks contrasted with those last week from the US State Department which said its officials had been informed about the move in advance and gave no sign of displeasure ? even if Washington was not ready to follow London's lead.

The senior US government official clearly expressed discomfort with the British decision. He said he would like the British to explain to him "the difference between the political, military and social wings of Hizbollah because we don't see a difference between the integrated leadership that they see." Earlier this month in London, the British foreign secretary David Miliband said that Britain had authorised low-level contact with the political wing of Lebanon's Hizbollah to stress the urgency of disbanding militias.

He underscored the need to curb Shiite-led Iran's influence with the Shiite militant group and others in the region in a statement immediately hailed by Hizbollah. The US government official, when asked if London consulted Washington ahead of time, replied: "I would say informed under a previous administration is a more accurate description." He was apparently referring to the administration of president George W Bush, which was succeeded Jan 20 by that of Barack Obama.

The official also objected to the glorification in the Hizbollah stronghold of south Beirut of Imad Mugnieh, a Hizbollah commander who was killed in a car bombing in February 2008 that the movement blamed on Israel. "For years Hizbollah denied having any knowledge of Imad Mugnieh, for years Hizbollah pretended that Imad Mugnieh and that whole era of Hizbollah was not really Hizbollah, it was something else," the official said.

"And now all over south Beirut are all these posters extolling the virtues of Imad Mugnieh," said the official of the man who made America's most wanted list for his role in anti-US and anti-Israeli attacks in the 1980s and 1990s. When a journalist suggested he did not sound happy with the British decision, he replied: "No." Last week, Gordon Duguid, a State Department spokesman said "we are not ready to take the same step" that the British took, declining to either praise or criticise it.

However, the Obama administration, which has talked about engaging states hostile to the US, seemed interested in the results of the British contacts with Hizbollah when Mr Duguid said "we will watch how that proceeds." And in sharp contrast to the senior government official, a State Department official said last week that Washington envisioned possible benefits from the British decision.


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