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John Kerry to Mideast, Europe on damage control mission

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Photo - Secretary of State John Kerry speaks in Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, during a ceremony to dedicate a bust of Winston Churchill. Senate and House leaders, as well as Kerry, gathered on Wednesday to dedicate the Churchill bust, which will now stand in the Capitol as a testament to the strength of the relationship between the US and the United Kingdom. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. watches at right. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks in Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, during a ceremony to dedicate a bust of Winston Churchill. Senate and House leaders, as well as Kerry, gathered on Wednesday to dedicate the Churchill bust, which will now stand in the Capitol as a testament to the strength of the relationship between the US and the United Kingdom. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. watches at right. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry is hitting the road again, this time on a damage-control mission to the Middle East and Europe where rancor is high over U.S. strategies in Syria, Egypt and Iran as well as American surveillance activities revealed by ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden.

Kerry will leave Washington this weekend for Saudi Arabia, Poland, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Morocco, the State Department said on Thursday. With tensions between the U.S. and many of its allies rising, the department acknowledged that at least parts of the nine-day trip might be difficult.

"The secretary overall believes that rolling up his sleeves and having personal diplomacy is the way that we should continue to approach either issues we work together on, global challenges, or issues where there may be concerns as it relates to the intel-gathering reports," spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

At his first scheduled stop in Riyadh, Kerry will confront multiple spats with the Saudis over resolving the continuing conflict in Syria, nuclear negotiations with Iran and President Barack Obama's decision to withhold significant amounts of U.S. assistance to Egypt.

In his meeting with Saudi King Abdullah, Kerry "will reaffirm the strategic nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, given the importance of the work between our two countries on shared challenges, and the leadership Saudi Arabia provides for the region," Psaki said.

It may be a hard sell.

Senior Saudi officials have expressed frustration and anger with the Obama administration's Syria policy, despite Washington's and Riyadh's shared goal of bringing an end to President Bashar Assad's rule. Kerry himself has publicly acknowledged Saudi disappointment with the fact that Obama did not follow through on his threat to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons with military strikes. Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of providing military assistance to Assad's foes and wants the U.S. to take a more active role, a course the White House has resisted.

In addition, Saudi Arabia has watched with dismay as the administration has embarked on a tentative rapprochement with its archrival Iran and distanced itself from the government in Egypt in the aftermath of the military's ouster of the country's first democratically elected president.

Kerry told a town hall meeting with State Department employees earlier this week that he would like to travel to Egypt in the near future, but the itinerary released on Thursday did not include a stop there.

From Saudi Arabia, Kerry will travel to Warsaw for discussions with senior Polish officials on strategic and democracy issues, including missile defense and plans for NATO's withdrawal from Afghanistan next year.

Although it is the only European stop on Kerry's schedule, the visit to Poland will likely highlight the uproar over the revelations of alleged NSA spying on the continent and elsewhere. The controversy is particularly acute in neighboring Germany, where officials are incensed that Chancellor Angela Merkel was targeted for surveillance.

From Poland, the secretary will fly back to the Middle East, first visiting Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The visit will mark Kerry's fifth solo trip to Israel since April.

In Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Kerry will go over developments in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that have been going on with no tangible signs of progress since July with a nine-month target for reaching a deal.

Earlier this week, Israel released a second batch of Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture. The next day, however, it announced plans for new construction in east Jerusalem, angering the Palestinians who claim the territory for their future capital.

Nuclear negotiations with Iran, which will be entering their second round in Geneva while Kerry is in Jerusalem, will also be a topic of discussion with Israeli officials, Psaki said. Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been openly disdainful of the administration's outreach to Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani who took office in August promising reforms.

Netanyahu has disparaged Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and warned that he cannot be trusted in negotiations meant to get Iran to prove that is not trying to develop nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy program.

"The secretary is open and willing to talk about what our goals and our bottom line is (in the negotiations with Iran), and he looks forward to doing that, as well as discussing direct negotiations," Psaki said.

After seeing Palestinian officials in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Kerry will make the short flight to Amman, where he will discuss the peace process as well as the situation in Syria with top Jordanian officials. Jordan is under significant strain due to the conflict in Syria and is hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, who are proving a drain on its already shaky economy.

After Jordan, Kerry heads to the United Arab Emirates, another strong supporter of increased U.S. involvement in Syria, and will then head back to Washington via North Africa.

In Algeria and Morocco, he will compare notes on security and counterterrorism matters as well as democratic and economic reform in the wake of the revolutions that convulsed the region. The United States has "strategic dialogues" with both countries that are meant to enhance cooperation on a wide range of issues.

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