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Obama kicks off Mideast trip


09:19, March 20, 2013

WASHINGTON, March 19 (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Barack Obama left on Tuesday night for a three-day visit to the Middle East, with focus on Iran's nuclear program, the Syrian conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The trip to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan is the president's first overseas travel after starting his second four-year term in January, and came right after Secretary of State John Kerry toured five nations in the region earlier this month.

However, Obama and his administration officials have played down expectations of what they have called "a listening tour," saying no new peace initiative would be unveiled.

As to Iran's controversial nuclear project, Obama recently repeated his preference of a diplomatic resolution, calling for the Islamic republic to take "immediate and meaningful steps" to reduce tensions over its continued and expanded uranium enrichment activities, which the West suspects are part of the efforts to make a nuclear weapon.

While the West suspects that Iran's uranium enrichment may be meant for moving closer to the ability to make nuclear weapons, Iran insists that its nuclear program is only for peaceful use.

Obama is not expected to share any new ideas about how to end the two-year-old conflict in Syria as his press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday ruled out once again arming the rebels for now.

Syria's state media accused the rebels of firing a rocket stuffed with chemical materials on Tuesday in northern Aleppo province, killing at least 25 people and injuring 130 others, a claim echoed by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Carney said Washington has "no evidence to substantiate the charge that the opposition has used chemical weapons," urging instead the Syrian government to refrain from using the weapons of mass destruction and secure them from radical Islamists or face "consequences."

Israel has threatened military strikes should Syria's chemical weapons fall into the hands of Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group in Lebanon allied with Iran and Syria.

During his trip to Israel, Obama is expected to try to smooth over his relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strained over the years by their disagreements over settlement building on the occupied land and how best to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

Kerry arrived in Israel on Tuesday in preparation for Obama's visit.

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