Tue, Aug 14, 2007 - Page 6 News List

UK should talk to radicals, report says

AP , LONDON

Britain should begin talking directly with three of the Middle East's most prominent radical Islamic groups -- Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood -- a committee of lawmakers said in a report released yesterday.

British diplomats should speak with moderate elements from such groups and continue engaging Iran and Syria because their influence can no longer be ignored, parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee said

Mike Gapes, the committee's chairman, said the lesson of Northern Ireland, where the Irish Republican Army eventually moved away from terrorism and into political dialogue with Britain, should be applied to the Middle East.

"I think from experience in Northern Ireland, you know that sometimes you have to engage with people in a diplomatic way, sometimes quietly," Gapes, a Labour Party lawmaker, told British Broadcasting Corp radio.

The report criticized Britain's role in the international boycott of Hamas, saying it had contributed to the collapse of the unity government in the Palestinian territories.

Britain's priority should now be to draw Hamas back into a national unity government with the more moderate Fatah movement and persuade it to renounce violence, the committee said.

The lawmakers urged former prime minister Tony Blair, the new envoy for the Quartet group of Middle East mediators, to negotiate directly with the militant organization.

A similar approach was recommended for dealing with Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's outlawed opposition party. Lawmakers described Hezbollah's role in Lebanon as malign and said the scope of the Brotherhood's Islamist agenda was uncertain, but the power and influence of the two made dealing with them unavoidable.

The report said that dialogue with Syria and Iran must feature in regional negotiations. It said Damascus -- long accused of destabilizing Lebanon -- "may slowly be changing for the better."

Britain's Foreign Office said it had challenged Hamas to renounce violence before it would talk with the group, which now controls Gaza.

"There have to be some ground rules," the office said in a statement.

Hamas, which won elections last year but was expelled from government after its Gaza takeover, is considered a terrorist organization by the US and the EU. Both have refused to negotiate directly with the group. The US -- but not the EU -- has also labeled Hezbollah a terrorist organization, although many countries, including Britain, have outlawed the movement's armed wing.

US officials have also avoided meeting members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned since 1954 but is the country's most powerful opposition movement.

While the report largely covered British policy in the Middle East, it also questioned US foreign policy. The committee said the US-backed "road map" for Middle East peace had become irrelevant and that its "surge" strategy in Iraq was unlikely to succeed.

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