US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, in Washington, DC, on December 2, 2013
US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, in Washington, DC, on December 2, 2013 © Nicholas Kamm - AFP
US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, in Washington, DC, on December 2, 2013
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AFP
Last updated: December 3, 2013

Kerry heads on new Mideast trip

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Globe-trotting US Secretary of State John Kerry has left on a new trip heading first for key NATO talks, before then traveling to Israel aiming to soothe concerns over a nuclear deal with Iran.

The top US diplomat will also pay a landmark visit to the former Soviet satellite of Moldova, which has been off the beaten track for most American secretaries of state and high-level US officials in recent years.

The trip is Kerry's 18th since he took office in February, and in the past months he has spent 124 days on the road, traveling some 253,610 miles and visiting 35 countries.

Kerry will head straight into meetings with NATO foreign ministers when he lands in Brussels early Tuesday for talks to be dominated by Afghanistan.

The United States and its NATO allies are wrestling with the implications of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign a deal governing the presence of any troops left after international forces withdraw late next year.

Though Kerry and Karzai have agreed the final details of a US-Afghan bilateral security agreement (BSA), the Afghan leader insisted at the last minute that his successor, to be chosen in April 2014 presidential elections, should seal the deal.

Karzai's U-turn, which ignores the wishes of a traditional assembly of Afghan leaders, has angered the US administration of President Barack Obama, which fears it will be impossible to plan for a post-2014 presence in Afghanistan.

"Deferring the signature of the agreement until after next year's election is not viable," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki reiterated Monday.

"It would not provide Afghans with the certainty that they deserve regarding their future in the critical months leading to the elections, nor would it provide the United States and NATO allies the clarity necessary for a potential post-2014 military presence."

Psaki stressed that although Obama has not decided yet how many troops will be left behind to help train Afghan troops beyond 2014 "no troops is certainly a potential outcome for Afghanistan, if there is no BSA."

After Brussels, Kerry will head to Moldova as "they have put a number of reforms in place and they're working hard on their economy and the secretary felt it was important to highlight that," Psaki said.

She would not be drawn on whether his visit was a calculated snub to neighboring Ukraine after Kerry canceled a planned trip there for the summit this week of a European security body.

The United States has echoed the condemnation of the violent crackdown on demonstrations in Kiev protesting the government's decision not reject a deal aimed at strengthening ties with the European Union.

Psaki has said Kerry was forced to cancel his trip because of "scheduling issues," and stressed that Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland still planned to lead the US team to the meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The toughest leg of the trip will be when Kerry lands in Israel later this week for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a deal struck last month to rein in Iran's nuclear program.

The Israeli leader on Monday again slammed the international community's "rush to accommodate" Iran.

"The Iranian regime, though it smiles, continues to butcher people in Syria and sponsor terrorism," Netanyahu said in Rome after talks with Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta.

Kerry will also meet with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas as he seeks to keep faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations on track.

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