Diplomatic sources say they believe that US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is again the Obama administration’s leading choice to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs nominee, but say she wasn’t anxious to come back to Washington.

In the unusually long second term transition shuffle, the rumor mill on top contenders to head the NEA bureau has cycled through a list that had Patterson at the top of the list a couple months ago, and also includes US Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones, Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft, US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, among others. Most recently, some in the bureau wagered Beecroft would  get tapped. But in the past few days, several former senior US officials and diplomats say  they believe Patterson has returned to the top of the list yet again, for a few reasons, despite her rumored reluctance to come back from the field.

Among them, Beecroft is very hard to replace in Iraq at the moment. Ford would be a contender, but it’s hard to imagine the Obama White House would want to move him from Syria at such a sensitive moment in US Syria policy. For Iraq, the administration will be looking for a nominee who has a relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a former diplomat said, adding that list is pretty short.

Patterson did not respond to a query from the Back Channel.

If Patterson is persuaded to come back to Washington and is confirmed, she would be the first female head of the NEA bureau, a former State Department official said.  (Beth Jones has served in the acting capacity for the past year, since Jeff Feltman resigned from the State Department to become the UN Undersecretary for Political Affairs.)  Among possibilities of who could succeed her in Cairo, Jordan envoy Jones will get a good look, the former State Department official suggested. (One possibility would be to name a political appointee to Amman who can work to support the US relationship to the critical ally on Syria and the Middle East peace process, amid a staggering refugee crisis and its political and economic reform efforts.)

The anticipation of the NEA Assistant Secretary nominee comes amid a sense of a bit of drift and a senior management/leadership vacuum at State, with several top positions going unfilled.

Secretary of State John Kerry hit the ground running, knows the policy and is doing the diplomacy amid near constant travel (he was in Rome and Moscow this week and heads to Sweden next week before heading to Geneva for a planned Syria peace conference expected to be held later this month, among just the latest trips).

But there is no Assistant Secretary for Near East, Asia, or Europe in place at the moment, the second Deputy job previously held by Tom Nides is unfilled, and officials believe that Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns would be a top contender to be US Ambassador to the UN if Susan Rice moves over to be National Security Advisor at some point. That leaves even more top slots to fill, for a White House that has been unusually slow to pick, vet and name nominees. And which is likely to be even more gun shy about the process after the grilling it got this week on Benghazi.