US military to keep 'strong' role in Mideast: Panetta

AFP , Tuesday 11 Dec 2012

US military will retain a 'strong presence' in Middle East despite strategic shift to Asia, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta claims states during visit to Kuwait

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (L) poses for photo as he is greeted by Kuwaiti Defense Minister Sheik Ahmad Al-Khaled Al Sabah, after arriving at Kuwait International Airport in Kuwait City, Tuesday (Photo: Reuters)

The United States plans to deploy a majority of its naval fleet to the Asia-Pacific along with other advanced weaponry but Defence Secretary Leon Panetta insisted Tuesday, in Kuwait, that a robust American force would remain in place in the Middle East.

Panetta spoke to reporters aboard his plane travelling to Kuwait City on a two-day visit to discuss bolstering security ties amid tumult in the region and tensions with Iran.

"Let me assure you that the United States is strong enough that we can maintain a strong presence in the Middle East as well as in the Pacific," he said.

He acknowledged that the United States had to be "flexible" in managing its forces in a more austere era and that it would have only one aircraft carrier in the Middle East for about two months to allow for maintenance work on another carrier, the USS Nimitz.

The American military still had nearly 50,000 troops and warships positioned across the region, he said.

"But in the end, I am very confident that we're going to be able to maintain the ships and forces we need in order to respond to any contingency."

The United States has deployed more ships and aircraft in the strategic Gulf over the past year after Iran threatened to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz if Western countries boycotted Iranian oil exports.

Kuwait's emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, held talks at his residence with Panetta in the presence of the crown prince, the prime minister, defence minister and senior officials, the state-run KUNA news agency reported.

KUNA provided no details about the talks.

During the visit, which ends on Wednesday, Panetta also plans to meet some of the 13,500 US troops stationed in the Gulf state to thank them for their service ahead of the Christmas holidays.

His visit is the first to the emirate by a Pentagon chief in five years.

"We share a history of cooperation that goes back to the first Gulf War," in 1991 that ousted Iraqi occupation forces, Panetta said of Kuwait, calling the country an "important partner".

"I look forward to discussing with the government of Kuwait how can we enhance that cooperation in the face of regional security challenges in the area," he said.

"Our presence in Kuwait and throughout the Gulf helps enhance the capabilities of partner nations, deters aggression and helps ensure that we're better able to respond to crises in the region."

Panetta's visit coincides with a wave of protests in the oil-rich Gulf state, with thousands of opposition demonstrators demanding fresh elections due to a bitter dispute over amendments to the country's electoral law.

Kuwaiti activists have called for protesters to camp outside parliament next Saturday on the eve of its opening session.

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