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In visit to Afghanistan and Iraq, Panetta fixes his gaze on the exit sign

Former CIA chief Leon Panetta, now secretary of Defense, is assessing the US military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and how to bring them to a successful end.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / July 11, 2011

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sits with Commanding General of US Forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin as they fly in a Blackhawk helicopter over Baghdad, on Monday, July 11.

Paul J. Richards/AP



After being sworn in as the nation’s new secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta’s first order of business was to head for Iraq and Afghanistan to assess two military engagements in varying stages of winding down.

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In interviews, Mr. Panetta, the former director of central intelligence, has begun to paint a portrait of how he sees the wars in those countries progressing, and of the pressures that he believes he must now exert as Defense secretary to bring them to a successful conclusion.

On the ground, he has been meeting with US troops and getting briefings from the top military officials, most notably Gen. David Petraeus, who is preparing to step down as the commander of forces in Afghanistan to assume Mr. Panetta’s old job at the CIA.

Panetta has already taken on what his predecessor and the commander in chief describe as the most wrenching duty their jobs entail: signing condolence letters to the families of US troops who have been killed in battle.

“It makes me that much more aware of the responsibility we have to support these men and women and to do everything we can to support their families,” he told reporters in his first news conference while aboard the plane.

It was a point Panetta emphasized during a visit to Baghdad Monday, where attacks on US forces and casualties are once against on the rise. “We’re very concerned that in June, we lost a helluva lot of Americans because of those attacks,” he said.

June was the deadliest month for US soldiers in Iraq in two years, and Panetta blamed Iran for providing lethal weapons to Iraqi militias. “We cannot just simply stand back and allow this to continue to happen,” he said.

Panetta’s predecessors have wrestled with just what they can do to protect troops from such weapons, including powerful roadside bombs known as explosively-formed projectiles, or EFPs, with dart-like shaped charges that cut through armored vehicles.

One chief aim of the trip has been to push Iraqi government forces to go after the Shiite militias that still exist, particularly in areas of east Baghdad.

“They are starting to do that,” Panetta said. But he added that the US will continue to exert pressure on forces supported by Iran.


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