Carter, in Lebanon, Says Ready to Meet With Hezbollah Officials

Former U.S. president says the Shi'ite militant group will decide whether there is going to be a meeting.

Former United States President Jimmy Carter said Tuesday he is ready to meet with Hezbollah officials if the Lebanese militant group agreed to see him.

Carter made the comments upon arrival in Lebanon where he will assess whether his Atlanta-based Carter Center would take part in monitoring next year's parliamentary elections.

Asked whether he would meet with Hezbollah officials during his five-day visit, Carter told reporters that it was up to the militant group, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.

"I am going to meet with all of the political parties as possible," Carter said. "I understand that several leaders of Hezbollah said they were not going to meet with any president or former president of the United States, so I don't know yet."

A Hezbollah official told The Associated Press the group had no immediate comment on Carter's remarks but said it might issue a statement, most likely on Wednesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Israel fought the 2006 Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah, after the group abducted two of its soldiers in a cross-border raid.

Washington blames Hezbollah for the explosion that killed 241 U.S. Marines at their Beirut barracks in 1983, as well as for two attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the 1985 TWA hijacking that killed an American serviceman on board.

Hezbollah denies the accusations and says it opposes terrorism. Carter was widely criticized in April when he met in Syria with the exiled Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal. The U.S. also labels Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, a terrorist organization.

The Meshal-Carter meeting led to the delivery of a handwritten letter from Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas-linked militants near the Gaza border in 2006, to his parents.

While in Lebanon, Carter said he will meet with President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.

"I will also be making an assessment on whether the Carter Center will monitor the elections that we hope will be held on time next June," Carter said. Next year's elections are expected to be fierce between U.S.-backed groups that hold majority seats in the current parliament and those backed by Syria, including Hezbollah.

Carter is also scheduled to travel to Syria during his Mideast trip to meet with President Bashar Assad.