CAIRO — Former President Carter met a Hamas delegation from Gaza Thursday, part of a series of talks with the Islamic militant group that has drawn sharp criticism from U.S. and Israeli officials.

Carter spoke with Hamas officials in the West Bank on Wednesday and angered Israelis when he embraced one of them. He plans to meet the group's exiled political chief, Khaled Mashaal, in Damascus, Syria, today.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate who brokered Israel's historic peace agreement with Egypt three decades ago is on what he calls a private peace mission. He contends the U.S., Israel and other Western states should stop isolating Hamas if they want peace efforts to succeed.

An Associated Press reporter saw the Hamas delegation with about 15 members heading into the meeting at a Cairo hotel and a Hamas coordinator in Egypt confirmed they were meeting with Carter. The coordinator spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The meeting was closed and held under heavy security shortly after Carter and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met and then had lunch together with their wives. The former president was scheduled to give a speech and meet reporters later Thursday at the American University of Cairo.

The Hamas delegation in Cairo was headed by Gaza leaders Mahmoud Zahar and Said Siyam.

Zahar said Wednesday that Carter's meetings with its leaders will boost the group's legitimacy despite criticism by Israel and the U.S. government.

"This meeting is a message to those who don't recognize Hamas' legitimacy as a movement," he said as he left for Egypt, according to Hamas' Web site.

Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since its bloody takeover from the rival Fatah faction last June, opposes peace negotiations with Israel and is committed to the Jewish state's destruction.

The group has killed some 250 Israelis in suicide bombings and is branded a terror organization by the U.S. and Israel.

When he arrived in Egypt on Wednesday, Carter was greeted at the airport by U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Francis J. Ricciardone.

Ricciardone, speaking to reporters in Arabic, described Carter as a "man of peace" but said the U.S. government disagrees with him about his contacts with Hamas.

Carter also has been criticized by some Democrats in Congress. Howard L. Berman of California, who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Gary Ackerman, a New Yorker who heads the House subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, urged Carter to cancel the meeting with Mashaal.

"We believe this ... will undermine the Middle East peace process and damage the credibility of Palestinian moderates," including President Mahmoud Abbas, the two said in a letter addressed to Carter. "The legitimacy and prestige that Hamas will derive from your visit will be seen in the region as a clear demonstration that violence pays."

Abbas, the moderate head of Fatah, runs a government in the West Bank that rivals Hamas' Gaza regime.

In Israel, all senior political leaders except President Shimon Peres declined to meet with Carter when he visited.