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Third-Ranking State Department Official Stepping Down

The U.S. State Department's third-ranking official, Undersecretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, has announced his resignation effective in March. Burns, in the post for three years, has been a key diplomatic troubleshooter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Burn's decision to step down comes as a surprise given his active involvement in several key issues including the status of Kosovo, U.N. sanctions against Iran, and the stalled U.S.-Indian nuclear accord.

However officials here insist there is no policy dispute behind the move. They say Burns, with three daughters at or nearing college age, wants to pursue a potentially more lucrative job in the private sector.

Burns had a meteoric career in the U.S. Foreign Service. He was a White House policy adviser on Soviet affairs in the final years of the Cold War, and served as U.S. ambassador to Greece and to NATO. He became Undersecretary for Political Affairs, traditionally the top State Department job for a career foreign service officer, before the age of 50.

Secretary Rice announced the resignation at a brief press event with Burns, recalling their service together on the White House staff of the first President Bush:

"It's been terrific to have a friend working alongside me in what have been more trying times for our country, those times at the end of the Cold War, and somebody who recognizes that it is only when America is strong in its values, committed to those values, and determined to do the hard things that one can look forward to outcomes like we had at the end of the Cold War for some future administration concerning the Middle East," she said.

Burns, for his part, praised his Foreign Service colleagues over his 26-year career, and Rice for what he said was her singular commitment to the success of U.S. foreign policy in what he termed a "very dangerous and different time."

"I'm going to continue to support your efforts to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace, to finish this very promising strategic opening to India, which will do so much good for our country and our global foreign policy, and to help and to support as you contend with these extraordinary challenges at this difficult time," he said. "You can count on that."

State Department officials say that given the importance of the post, a successor to Burns as Undersecretary has already been identified though a formal announcement will not come for several days.

They say U.S. ambassador to Russia William Burns, no relation to Nicholas Burns, has been tapped for the post. William Burns has served in a number of key positions in the current administration including Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs.