WASHINGTON Amid a global uproar over WikiLeaks' release of sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton begins a trip to Central Asia and the Middle East on Monday, during which she may personally feel some heat from affronted allies.
The State Department on Sunday formally announced Clinton's trip, which takes take her first to Kazakhstan where world leaders including Russian President Dmitry Medevedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are also expected to attend a summit of the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
In an illustration of the potential awkwardness, one cable is reported by Britain's Guardian newspaper as describing Medvedev as being in a partnership with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in which he "plays Robin to Putin's Batman."
Other documents cited by German news weekly Der Spiegel describe Merkel as someone who "avoids risk and is seldom creative" and her foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, as arrogant, vain and critical of America.
From Kazakhstan, Clinton travels to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, two other former Soviet republics in Central Asia which have been targets of criticism in the past, before heading to Bahrain to deliver a speech on the U.S. security role in a region jittery over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Clinton's November 30-December 3 trip was planned before Sunday's release of sensitive U.S. diplomatic communications provided by whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, which revealed sensitive U.S. views on foreign leaders, terrorism and nuclear proliferation in an embarassing blow to U.S. diplomacy.
The U.S. government, informed in advance of the contents, has contacted governments around the world, including in Russia, Europe and the Middle East, to try to limit damage.
But the release nevertheless promises to complicate Clinton's mission, already overshadowed by the crisis on the Korean peninsula following North Korea's artillery attack on a South Korean island last week.
Among the revelations highlighted by the New York Times, one of five media organizations given early access to the Wikileaks material, were reports that Saudi King Abdullah has repeatedly urged the United States to attack Iran's nuclear program, and China directed cyberattacks on the United States.
Other material indicates U.S. diplomats believe Saudi donors remain the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups like al Qaeda; that they have been unsuccessfully seeking to remove highly enriched uranium from Pakistan; and they have been talking to South Korean officials about the prospects of a reunified Korea in a "benign alliance" with Washington.
Clinton's official program will present its own challenges.
In Kazakhstan, the spotlight will fall on host President Nursultan Nazarbayev's pledges -- unfulfilled, according to human rights groups -- to improve democracy and human rights in his oil-rich country.
The two other Central Asian stops are both in countries which play important roles in the U.S.-led drive to oust the Taliban from nearby Afghanistan, but which have their own political problems.
Clinton is due to meet President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, which the U.S. State Department this year dubbed Central Asia's most authoritarian state but which nevertheless serves as a vital supply route for NATO operations in the Afghan conflict.
She will also stop for talks in Kyrgyzstan -- which hosts a major U.S. air transit facility for Afghanistan -- in an effort to push political reconciliation following an April uprising that included ethnic clashes.
Clinton's final stop in Bahrain will give her a chance to brief regional leaders on both the Iranian nuclear issue and U.S.-brokered Middle East peace talks, both of which appear to be hanging in limbo.
Tehran has expressed a readiness for discussions with major world powers on December 5 but the details have yet to be worked out and it is unclear whether talks will get under way over a program Western nations fear aims to produce an atomic bomb. Iran says its nuclear program is to generate electricity.
In the Mideast, meanwhile, intensive U.S. diplomatic efforts to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table have yet to yield results, although U.S. officials are hopeful that new U.S. security guarantees for Israel may still allow direct talks to resume.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)