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Leon Panetta's first day at Pentagon helm: It's not all grim.

A tough job awaits Leon Panetta at the Pentagon: three wars, budget cuts, Al Qaeda in Yemen, prospects of a nuclear Iran. But some good news awaits the new Defense secretary, too.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / July 1, 2011

Leon Panetta is sworn is as the new Secretary of Defense by Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson, Friday, July 1, at the Pentagon.

Evan Vucci/AP

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Washington

When Leon Panetta settles into his desk on his first day as Defense secretary Friday, he will face no shortage of challenges. There are America’s wars: the "surge" drawdown in Afghanistan, an uptick in violence in Iraq, a campaign with NATO in Libya. There is historic pressure to rein in defense spending – the Pentagon is now studying how it might cut $400 billion from its budget over the next 10 years, as part of the White House plan to reduce the nation’s long-term deficit.

There are the matters, too, of an ambitious Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, Iran’s nuclear aspirations, and a US relationship with North Korea that is “at the most dangerous time in quite a while,” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut during a congressional hearing this week.

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But amid these daunting pressures, some good news awaits Mr. Panetta as he takes his oath of office. Thanks in part to the work he conducted in his most recent job directing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), for example, Al Qaeda is in some turmoil. The trove of intelligence that Navy SEAL Team 6 recovered from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan indicates that even before the terrorist leader’s death, Al Qaeda was under “enormous strain,” as President Obama said in his June 22 troop drawdown speech.

Bin Laden had expressed concern that Al Qaeda was unable to find effective replacements for senior terrorists who have been killed, according to intelligence. Senior US officials all but heralded the group's decision to elevate to the No. 1 position bin Laden’s longtime right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is widely regarded among lower-ranking fighters as a prickly micromanager.

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