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Pentagon chief Panetta: US within reach of defeating Al Qaeda

On his first trip to Afghanistan as Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta offered an upbeat assessment. "We're within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda," he said.

By Robert BurnsAssociated Press / July 9, 2011

Lenny Denham, 22, left, of Baton Rouge, La., with 2nd Platoon, Charlie Battery, 3rd Battalion, 321 Field Artillery Regiment out of Fort Bragg, N.C., prepares to load a 155mm round into a 777 Howitzer cannon during a firing mission at insurgents Friday at Forward Operating Base Bostick in Kunar province, Afghanistan.

David Goldman/AP

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Kabul, Afghanistan

The United States and its allies are within reach of defeating Al Qaeda after killing Osama bin Laden and gaining new insights about the terrorist group's other leading figures, new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Saturday.

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The former CIA director offered an upbeat assessment about the prospects for ending Al Qaeda’s threat as he spoke with reporters flying with him on his first visit to Afghanistan since taking over as Pentagon chief July 1.

In the aftermath of the May 2 raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan, the US has determined that eliminating "somewhere around 10 to 20 key leaders" of Al Qaeda would cripple the network, Panetta said. Those leaders are in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa, he added.

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"We're within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda," Panetta said, addressing reporters for the first time since succeeding Robert Gates as defense secretary.

"The key is that, having gotten bin Laden, we've now identified some of the key leadership within Al Qaeda, both in Pakistan as well as in Yemen and other areas," he said.

"If we can be successful at going after them, I think we can really undermine their ability to do any kind of planning, to be able to conduct any kind of attack" on the United States. "That's why I think it's within reach. Is it going to take some more work? You bet it is. But I think it's within reach," Panetta said.

He said the 10 to 20 top terrorist figures now the focus of US efforts include Ayman al-Zawahri, the designator successor to bin Laden as Al Qaeda’s leader.

Panetta said the US believes al-Zawahri is living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of western Pakistan.

The only other name he mentioned was Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born Muslim cleric living in Yemen. The US has put him on a kill-or-capture list.

"Now is the moment, following what happened with bin Laden, to put maximum pressure on them because I do believe that if we continue this effort we can really cripple Al Qaeda as a major threat" to America, he said.