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Former Pres. Jimmy Carter Ready to Meet Hezbollah Officials, If They Agree

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

Carter made his 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 United States 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.

Washington blames Hezbollah for the explosion that killed 241 U.S. military personnel at the Marines' Beirut airport base 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.

Those attacks were blamed on pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim militants.

But since the 1990s, Hezbollah, also a pro-Iranian Shiite militant group, has denied links to those attacks, insisting it opposes terrorism and stressing its fight is only with Israel. The group currently has representation in parliament and in the Cabinet, with a powerful military wing that fought Israel in the 2006 war.

Carter was widely criticized in April when he met in Syria with the exiled Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal. The U.S. also labels Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, a terrorist organization.

The Mashaal-Carter meeting led to the delivery of a handwritten letter from Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who was captured 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.