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U.S. defense chief embarks on visit to N. Africa, Middle East

07-30-2012 01:57 BJT

WASHINGTON, July 29 (Xinhua) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta began on Sunday a trip to North Africa and the Middle East "to meet with leaders and take the temperature of a crucial and volatile region," the American Forces Press Service reported.

Panetta will visit Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan, during which he "will touch on both big buckets of issues" related to the dramatic changes in the region and the challenges posed by Syria, Iran and extremism, a senior U.S. defense official was quoted as saying.

The region has witnessed dramatic changes in the past year and a half, amid a wave of protests that have taken place in many countries since the Arab Spring starting from Tunisia. Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in last August after NATO intervention in its conflict on the rebel side, while former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has also been forced to step down amid violent protests.

Violence has engulfed Syria since last March, as rebel forces backed by the West have been fighting in many parts of the country to try to overthrow the government led by President Bashar al- Assad.

In Tunisia, Panetta plans to lay out the roadmap for the future military-to-military relationship between the two countries in his meetings with leaders there. "The military has played a positive role in Tunisia, and we want that to continue," the defense official said.

"The message (of Panetta's visit) is just general support for what has happened in Tunisia," he said. "It's been a relatively stable and successful transition in Tunisia."

In Egypt, Panetta will meet with newly elected President Muhammad Morsi and Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who led the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which ruled during the period between Mubarak's downfall early last year and the election of Morsi in June.

In Israel, the closest U.S. ally, Iran is expected to top the agenda of Panetta's meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. The two countries have vowed to use any means to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, though Tehran insists its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.

Panetta also will meet with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. "Our defense partnership is extremely close," the U.S. defense official said. "The level of interaction of U.S. government officials with Israeli counterparts has been very intense."

In Jordan, the U.S. defense chief will discuss important bilateral defense issues with King Abdullah II. "Syria will obviously be a topic of conversation, as the Jordanians are on the front line of that. The secretary wants to hear more about the humanitarian situation -- Jordan and Turkey are bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis," the official said.


Editor:Zhang Dan |Source: Xinhua

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