John Kerry embarks on sweeping tour of Europe, Mid-East

WASHINGTON (AFP) - America's top diplomat John Kerry began his first official trip as secretary of state on Sunday, a marathon get-acquainted tour of America's closest allies in Europe and the Middle East.

Mr Kerry will visit Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar from Feb 24 to March 6. The first stop will be London, where Mr Kerry will meet with senior British officials, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Friday.

Mr Kerry travels on to Berlin where, in addition to meeting Germans, he will encounter his Russian counterpart, Mr Sergei Lavrov, for a tricky exchange at a time when Moscow and Washington are at loggerheads on many issues.

The marathon trip underscores Washington's new foreign policy imperative, which is subtly pivoting away from Asia and increasingly towards Europe.

Mr Tyson Barker of the Bertelsmann Foundation think tank said, after a first term focused on relations with Pacific countries, President Barack Obama hopes "to consolidate and retro-fit some of our legacy relationships".

He added that Mr Obama has in Mr Kerry someone who is "comfortable engaging with Europe, and someone with whom Europe is comfortable engaging".

Mr Kerry is a figure of standing in Washington. He served for decades as a US senator, including a stint as the chairman of the chamber's Foreign Relations Committee. He was also the Democratic party's presidential nominee in 2004.

Among the issues high on his agenda during the marathon series of talks is a newly announced effort to agree a mammoth free trade agreement between the United States and the European Union. Mr Obama announced the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in his annual State of the Union address last month, and said the agreement would boost economic growth and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.