Top U.S. diplomat for Middle East to retire, U.S. officials say

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East has told colleagues that he has decided to retire, three U.S. officials said on Tuesday, the latest senior U.S. diplomat to leave the Trump administration.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones speaks to the media at Lalish temple in Shikhan, Iraq, in this file photo dated February 24, 2016. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, has extensive experience in the Middle East after serving as U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Jordan and as deputy chief of mission in Cairo.

Jones, 57, told colleagues the decision was his own and that he had not been pushed out or asked to leave the department.

“This is his own decision ... There’s not been a falling out,” said a U.S. official who spoke on condition that he not be identified. “There’s no story here, except another senior government official with real competence is leaving.”

A State Department spokesman confirmed Jones’ planned retirement, saying he was leaving for personal reasons to pursue a new career.

Jones’ case is different from those of two career foreign service officers - former undersecretaries of state Patrick Kennedy, the department’s top management official, and Thomas Countryman, its top arms control officer - who had risen to politically appointed jobs and were asked to leave in January.

The decision to accept their resignations was entirely within President Donald Trump’s rights and there is usually turnover in such politically appointed jobs. But it constituted an abrupt departure for the two.

Former State Department counselor Kristie Kenney also left in February, further shrinking the senior ranks of the agency.

Jones was elevated to acting assistant secretary of state responsible for the Near East and had neither been offered the job on a permanent basis nor told that he would not get it, said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

This official said Jones was not asked to leave and wanted to make his plans known so there would not be speculation that he had been forced out.

Career diplomats with deep regional experience are typically chosen to run the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Officials who fit that profile include Robert “Steve” Beecroft, U.S. ambassador to Egypt; David Hale, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan; and Douglas Silliman, U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Dan Grebler and Bill Trott