The Bush administration says it has counseled former President Jimmy Carter against having a meeting with the head of the militant Palestinian group Hamas.  Mr. Carter reportedly intends to meet Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal next week in the Syrian capital Damascus.  VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The State Department routinely helps facilitate meetings former U.S. presidents have with foreign leaders and other important figures.

But it has served notice that it will not provide any logistical help for Mr. Carter if he meets the Hamas chief, saying it would be against the interests of peace and undercut efforts to isolate Hamas, which the State Department lists as a terrorist organization.

Mr. Carter, a Democrat who held the White House from 1977 to 1981, reportedly plans to meet with Hamas leader Meshaal late next week in Damascus

In a talk with reporters, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the former president was advised against the Hamas meeting last week when he discussed his travel plans by telephone with Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch.

McCormack said as a private citizen the former president can meet with anyone he wishes.  But he said meeting Hamas runs against the efforts of the Bush administration and its partners in the international Middle East Quartet to isolate Hamas because of its refusal accept Israel's right to exist.

"The choice the international community has laid out for them [Hamas] is pretty simple," he said. "You can engage in conversations and negotiations with Israel with the support of rest of the international community, abjure terrorism, turn away from violence  recognize Israel's right to exist - which the Palestinian Authority has done through President [Mahmoud] Abbas and his previous statements - or you can take a separate pathway, and that is the pathway represented by Hamas and other Palestinian rejectionist groups."

Former President Carter, now 83 years old, has been active in international crisis mediation through his Atlanta-based Carter Center and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

His views on the Middle East attracted controversy last year with a book he wrote comparing Israeli policies in occupied Palestinian areas with those of apartheid-era South Africa.

The campaign of presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain has sharply criticized the reported meeting plans, while spokesmen for Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama have used milder language, saying they do not agree with Mr. Carter's plans.

Last November, a panel of foreign policy experts from past administrations including Republican Brent Scowcroft and Democrat Zbigniew Brzezinski said in a policy report before the Annapolis Middle East peace conference that genuine dialogue with Hamas is preferable to its isolation.