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Thomas Pickering, a veteran diplomat who has headed American embassies on four continents and served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is the front-runner for a top policy job at the State Department.

He would work for Madeleine Albright, who appears certain to receive easy Senate confirmation next week as secretary of state, bringing with him long experience on Russia and the Middle East.Pickering, 65, stepped down last year as ambassador to Moscow to head an East-West foundation. He had built up a 31/2-year relationship with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and was considered in the running to succeed Warren Christopher as secretary of state.

Pickering would hold the post of undersecretary of state for political affairs, the State Department's third-highest position.

In line for two other top posts, administration officials said Friday, are Stuart E. Eizenstat to be undersecretary for economic affairs and Stanley Roth to be assistant secretary of state for East Asia.

Pickering would replace Peter Tarnoff, Eizenstat would succeed Joan Spero and Roth would take over for Winston Lord. Eizenstat currently is undersecretary of commerce for international affairs and Roth, formerly head of the Asia desk at the National Security Council, works for a research institute in Washington.

The administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said that Nancy Soderberg, a senior official at the National Security Council, is likely to get a top post at the U.S. mission to the United Nations and that Rick Inderfurth, a former reporter who has worked for Albright in New York, is expected to join her at the State Department.

In the reshuffling, Albright is likely to bring legal scholar David Scheffer with her from the U.S. mission in New York to head the policy planning office at the State Department.

And John C. Kornblum, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs who doubles as chief U.S. mediator for the Balkans, is in line to be ambassador to Germany, the officials said.

Pickering has served as ambassador to Jordan, Nigeria, El Salvador, Israel and India in a colorful career that took him to the United Nations and to Moscow, two of the biggest diplomatic jobs in the U.S. foreign service.

He holds the rank of career ambassador, the highest in the service, and speaks French, Spanish, Swahili, Arabic and Hebrew.

In his last months in Russia, he kept close watch on Yeltsin's problematic health and on the key officials in the Kremlin who helped shape policy when the president's heart condition incapacitated him - and could be in contention as a potential successor.