WASHINGTON Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday criticized any plans by ex-President Jimmy Carter to see the leader of Hamas in Syria next week, saying the militant group was an impediment to peace.
"I find it hard to understand what is to be gained by having discussions with Hamas about peace when Hamas is in fact the impediment to peace," Rice told reporters at a joint news conference with Germany's foreign minister.
The former U.S. president, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, could meet the exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, during a trip to the Middle East that begins on Sunday.
Hamas has confirmed the talks will take place but Carter has not yet provided any details of specific meetings during his nine-day trip that includes stops in the West Bank, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The State Department has counseled Carter, a vocal critic of Bush administration foreign policy, not to see the Hamas leader. Close U.S. ally Israel has also condemned the move.
"Hamas is a terrorist organization," said Rice, who sought Carter's counsel on his own previous Arab-Israeli peacemaking efforts ahead of a U.S.-hosted Middle East conference in Annapolis last November.
"Hamas has been offered many opportunities to come into line with international standards concerning the Middle East," she said, including recognizing Israel, signing on to past pacts between the Palestinians and the Israelis and renouncing violence.
"Hamas has been unwilling to do that," Rice added.
Rice said pro-Western President Mahmoud Abbas -- whom she called the "legitimate president" of the Palestinian territories -- had also made clear he would only engage Hamas if certain conditions were met.
POLICY TO ISOLATE
U.S. policy has been to isolate Hamas, which seized control of Gaza last June, and to bolster Abbas, who rules the West Bank and is in U.S.-sponsored talks with the Israelis.
Despite the Palestinian territories being divided between Hamas-run Gaza and Abbas's West Bank, the Bush administration hopes there will be agreement on an independent Palestinian state by January 2009 when President George W. Bush leaves office.
Rice said Hamas had launched a coup against Abbas in Gaza last June and the militant group was squarely to blame for any suffering of the population in Gaza since then.
Carter, 83, served one term as president from 1977 to 1981, and has a long history in Middle East peacemaking.
He succeeded in negotiating the 1978 Camp David Accords that paved the way for peace between Israel and Egypt but he has increasingly taken positions highly critical of Israel.
In a 2006 book, he described Israeli policy in the occupied territories as "a system of apartheid."
Carter's proposed trip has also entered the U.S. presidential race, with Democratic contender Barack Obama saying on Friday it was not his place to criticize the former president although he would not meet with the militant Palestinian group himself.
(Editing by Eric Beech)