INDIANAPOLIS Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said on Friday it was not his place to criticize former President Jimmy Carter if he were to meet with Hamas, although Obama said he would not meet with the militant Palestinian group.
Hamas says the meeting will take place but Carter has not provided any details of whom he plans to meet during his nine-day trip to the Middle East, which begins on Sunday. The Bush administration and close U.S. ally Israel oppose the meeting.
"I'm not going to comment on former President Carter. He's a private citizen. It's not my place to discuss who he shouldn't meet with," Obama told reporters while campaigning in Indianapolis. "I know that I've said consistently that I would not meet with Hamas."
Carter has not publicly backed either candidate in the Democratic race but hinted recently that he supports Obama.
Carter's planned trip creates awkwardness for the Illinois senator, whose critics have sought to raise doubts about whether he might be inclined as president to put greater pressure on Israel to make concessions in peace talks with the Palestinians.
Such doubts could cost Obama support with some U.S. Jewish voters.
Obama, who is vying with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination to challenge Republican Sen. John McCain in November, insists he would not waver from the staunch support of Israel that has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Carter is one of the hundreds of Democratic Party heavyweights known as "superdelegates" who will have a say in determining the nominee, along with votes of the "pledged" delegates chosen in state-by-state nominating contests.
Obama has pledged that if he wins the White House, he would break from the Bush administration's practice of refusing to talk to U.S. foes and has said he would be open to meeting with the leaders of countries such as Iran.
However, Obama has said he would not meet with Hamas.
He reiterated that position on Friday, saying that Hamas was a "terrorist organization."
"It is not a state and until Hamas clearly recognizes Israel, renounces terrorism and abides by, or believes that the Palestinians should abide by previous agreements ... I don't think conversations with them would be fruitful," Obama said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday said she found it hard to understand what could be gained from any discussions with Hamas, saying the group was an "impediment to peace."
(Editing by Eric Beech)