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U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) tours the stage area ahead of the second session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina in this September 5, 2012 file photograph. U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to nominate Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, a source familiar with the process said on December 15, 2012.Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to nominate Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, sources familiar with the process said on Saturday.

Mr. Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president in 2004 and a stalwart Obama supporter, had been widely tipped as the likely candidate for top U.S. diplomat following the withdrawal last week of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice.

The announcement of Mr. Kerry's nomination could come as early as mid-week, according to one source knowledgeable of the situation, although it could also be delayed to avoid the impression of an overly-hasty return to politics following the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school on Friday.

The source said the White House is leaning toward unveiling Mr. Kerry's nomination as part of a high-profile package that would include his pick for defence secretary.

Former Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel is the top candidate to take over the Pentagon and the White House's vetting process for him is virtually complete, the source said.

Mr. Obama met Mr. Hagel at the White House on Dec. 3 to discuss the post and has also spoken to Vice President Joe Biden, the source said.

While Mr. Obama is said to be generally comfortable with Mr. Hagel's foreign policy views, there is some concern within the administration that his record of occasional criticism of Israel could create problems in the confirmation process.

Ms. Clinton, consistently rated as the most popular of Obama's cabinet, intends to step down toward the end of January when Mr. Obama is sworn in for a second term. The State Department said on Saturday she was recovering from a concussion suffered after she became dehydrated with a stomach virus.

There is widespread speculation that Ms. Clinton will seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2016.

Mr. Kerry's nomination would close the books on a political firestorm that engulfed Ms. Rice, the candidate seen as the early favourite for the top diplomatic job.

A close Obama confidante, Ms. Rice withdrew her name from consideration after heavy fire from Republicans for remarks she made in the aftermath of a Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Republicans have criticized the Obama administration for its early public explanations of the attack, and trained most of their firepower on Ms. Rice, who went on television to say that preliminary information suggested the assault was the result of protests over an anti-Muslim video made in California rather than a premeditated strike.

Ms. Rice, defended by Mr. Obama and other senior members of the administration, said on Thursday she was withdrawing her name from consideration to avoid a potentially lengthy and disruptive confirmation process in the U.S. Senate.

Mr. Kerry, known both nationally through his presidential run and in the U.S. Senate where he has long been a senior Democratic powerbroker, offers no such challenges.

After losing narrowly to Republican George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, Mr. Kerry forged a new identity as a congressional leader on foreign policy, often serving as a low-profile emissary for the White House.

Even Republicans in Congress said they expected their colleague to sail through the confirmation process.

"I think John Kerry would be an excellent appointment and would be easily confirmed by his colleagues," Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins said recently.

Mr. Kerry's departure from the Senate forces the Democrats to defend his seat.

The just-defeated but still-popular Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown, who took office in early 2010 after winning the last special election for a Massachusetts seat, is widely expected to run for Mr. Kerry's seat if he leaves.

Republicans criticized Ms. Rice for being too much of a political ally of Mr. Obama's rather a stateswoman. But Mr. Kerry has his own close ties to the Democratic president.

Mr. Kerry supported his fellow senator early in his 2008 presidential campaign and was a leading contender to be Mr. Obama's first secretary of state.

He served as an important ally in the Senate after Mr. Obama won the White House and has also played important supportive roles for the White House in foreign policy. Mr. Obama sent Mr. Kerry to Afghanistan in 2009, when he helped talk President Hamid Karzai into agreeing to a runoff election.