John Kerry Arrives in Cairo for Talks on U.S.-Egyptian Relations, Iraq

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CAIRO - Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Cairo on Sunday for talks with government officials on the first high-level U.S. visit to Egypt since the country's new president was inaugurated.

The State Department said Kerry will discuss a variety of issues with his Egyptian hosts, including the two countries' relationship as well as regional issues including Iraq and Syria.

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Kerry is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Egypt since the inauguration last month of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.

Relations between the two countries have been strained in recent months following the ouster of Egypt's first freely-elected president in a July coup.

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A senior State Department official traveling with Kerry said the U.S. is concerned about Egypt's imprisonment of journalists and activists, along with the mass death sentences handed down to Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

The official said that many of the hard-line policies concerning the U.S. are the result of a polarizing environment in Egypt since a coup last July ousted the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, and brought El-Sissi to power.

Kerry acknowledged those challenges and described a "critical moment of transition" in Egypt as he met with his counterpart upon arrival.

"The United States is very interested in working closely with President El-Sissi and Egypt in order to help make this transition as rapidly as possible," he said. "There are issues and concerns but we know how to work with these and I look forward to having that discussion this morning."

"With the regional issues, as critical as they are - Syria, Iraq and other issues regarding instability through terrorism in the Sinai, elsewhere - we have a lot to talk about," Kerry added.

The State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kerry will stress to Egyptian officials that more steps must be taken to bolster democracy.

The U.S. froze some of the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt following Morsi's ouster. About $575 million in suspended funds have been released over the past 10 days and will be used to pay existing defense contracts, according to the State Department official.

Kerry is on a tour of countries in the Middle East and Europe.

- Cassandra Vinograd