"I call on the US to change its stance towards Hizb Allah and I support direct dialogue between the two sides to that effect," Labour Minister Trad Hamadeh said in an interview on Friday night.

Hamadeh, who held talks with US officials in Washington earlier this year, was described this month by a US diplomatic
source as a "channel of communication" between the US and the Shia Muslim group.

"Describing me as a channel of communication is deceptive ... I am a minister of Lebanon, not a messenger," Hamadeh said.
"The talks I had were part of dialogue aimed at safeguarding the interests of my country."

Direct communication

He said direct communication between Hizb Allah and Washington would be more productive than contact through
intermediaries.

"The diplomacy of shutting doors and entering through windows is not a dynamic one. It lacks the capacity, efficiency and the competence needed to produce results," Hamadeh said.

Hamadeh, who has no official rank within pro-Syria Hizb Allah, kept his post in a new government line-up announced on Tuesday, three months after Damascus withdrew its forces from Lebanon after nearly 30 years.

Rice made a previously
unannounced visit to Beirut

Hizb Allah was represented in the cabinet for the first time
after the party won 14 seats in parliament in last month's
elections.

Hamadeh said his meetings with US officials including Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Elizabeth Dibble, took place with Hizb Allah's blessing.

"I met with Dibble but not before discussing it with the parliamentary bloc that supported and named me [to the government]," he said.

Hizb Allah, accused by the US of receiving financial and weapons support from Damascus and Tehran, played a key role in ending Israel's 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon and its fighters still clash sporadically with Israeli forces.

Political party

Hizb Allah, whose support runs deep in Lebanon's Shia Muslim community, has had representatives in parliament since 1992 and runs a wide network of social and charity services.

"The United States has a long standing policy towards Hizb Allah that has a history to it, that has a history of blood to it and that has not changed"

Condoleezza Rice,
US Secretary of State

The group's strong showing in the elections has proven a dilemma for the US, which touts June's polls as a victory in its drive for democracy in the region.

Washington has held out the prospect of legitimacy for the group if it abandons arms and transforms into a political party.

"Hizb Allah has its own constituency, institutions, representatives in parliament and ministers in the government. The argument of turning into a political party does not stand. It already is," Hamadeh said.

Rice visit

Hamadeh's comments come as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a previously unannounced visit to Beirut to meet leaders of the new government and express her support.

She reiterated Washington's demand that anti-Israeli Hizb Allah fighters be disarmed in line with UN resolution 1559, despite it joining the new government, and called on Syria to end a border blockade of Lebanon.

"The United States has a long standing policy towards Hizb Allah that has a history to it, that has a history of blood to it and that has not changed," Rice said.

"Ultimately, the resolution is speaking only to the fact that there can be only one authority in a country and in a democracy there can be only one authority and one authority that is armed."

The top US diplomat flew in from Israel under secrecy due to security fears in a country where there have been three politically motivated assassinations this year.