US Defence Secretary Leon E Panetta has said he is willing to assist Tunisia fight al Qaeda terrorists, during his visit to the country as part of a tour of North Africa and the Middle East.
“The US Department of Defence stands ready to help Tunisia to ensuring regional stability, to strengthen the capabilities of its defence institutions,” Panetta told journalists following a meeting with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki yesterday.
“I was pleased to begin a dialogue about how we can deepen that cooperation in the range of common concerns, counter violent extremism and terrorism,” Panetta said. “There are a number of efforts that we can assist them with to develop the kind of operations, the kind of intelligence that will help effectively deal with that threat.”
Panetta called on Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia to come up with counter-terrorism efforts to confront Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ensure border security. AQIM is becoming increasingly active in the region, especially in Mali, and assisted by weapons from Libya.
Panetta added that the United States is ready to assist in the training of the Tunisian armed forces and lauded the “positive role” they have played since the January 2011 revolution that ousted Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the Arab Spring.
Panetta is on a regional tour that will also take him to Egypt, Israel and Jordan. On Sunday he said that North Africa and the Middle East present a confluence of challenges he would explore during his trip to the region.
“I want to commend the Tunisian people on the success of their revolution and to thank the Tunisian armed forces for the positive role they play during that time of change,” he said during a news conference aboard his aircraft. “The United States continues to support efforts to strengthen Tunisia’s democracy, and DOD will play an important role in that effort.”
Panetta will speak with leaders in Tunisia and Egypt about stability and reform amid the changes of the Arab Awakening. In Egypt, the secretary will speak with leaders about finishing the transition to civilian rule and the need to provide for “as broad a coalition as possible,” Panetta said.
The United States has had a strong military-to-military relationship with Egypt since the 1970s, and Panetta said he wants that relationship to continue and grow.
In Israel, the secretary said, he looks to strengthen the already close alliance. In Jordan, he wants to speak to leaders bearing the humanitarian burden caused by the fighting in Syria.
Tunisia and Egypt represent opportunity for the region, Panetta said, noting that both countries overthrew dictatorships and both have transitioned to democratic rule. “Yet at the same time,” he added, “we are obviously dealing with the continuing threat of extremism, of terrorism, of violence in Syria and the continuing destabilizing behaviour in Iran.”
At each stop, the secretary said, he will reaffirm the U.S. commitment to stability in the region.
“Our goal is to advance security by supporting peaceful change throughout the region,” he said. “This means establishing strong partnerships with new democratic governments in the region.”
Panetta’s trip to Egypt comes on the heels of a mid-July visit there by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who also met Mursi and Egypt’s top general, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Top on the agenda will be Egypt’s turbulent democratic transition, which has seen the military wrestling for influence with the new president.
Clinton visited Israel on July 16, saying the two countries were “on the same page” in their determination to prevent Iran from achieving what the West fears is its goal of building a nuclear bomb.
On Wednesday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called for major powers to speed up efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program, cautioning it would be tougher to confront it once Tehran managed to cross an atomic threshold.
Israeli media interpreted Barak’s comments as pushing for a possible Israeli strike against Iran, which denies pursuit of atomic weapons and says its nuclear program is peaceful.