U.S. defense secretary notes ‘enhanced’ capabilities amid Mideast unrest

Story highlights

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta talks to reporters en route to Asia

He says recent events reinforce the need for a strong military presence in the Mideast

U.S. military capabilities in the region have been "enhanced" in recent days, he says

Panetta praises Libyan officials' "strong effort" in response to a deadly attack

CNN  — 

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Sunday that American forces can “deal with any potential contingencies” in the Middle East, especially after the military’s capabilities were recently “enhanced” after attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions.

Speaking to reporters en route to Tokyo, Panetta said recent unrest underscores the importance of having vibrant, flexible U.S. military capabilities in the region. That unrest includes an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, as well as violent protests near U.S. embassies in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and elsewhere.

“The events of this week remind all of us of the need to maintain a strong presence in the Middle East,” Panetta said.

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Some of that comes from U.S. forces’ extensive roots in the region, including bases in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and elsewhere. Those troops make it easier to respond to crises in the region, which Panetta acknowledged, as do other recent moves, which include calling on members of small Marine Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams, or FAST, teams and moving warships in the region.

“We have enhanced some of that presence with the FAST teams and others so that, if they are requested, they can respond more quickly,” Panetta said.

“It’s a combination of FAST teams plus some ships in the region that we have to try to give us the full capability we need in order to respond,” he added, while noting the didn’t “anticipate a situation right now where we would have to … do this on our own.”

Earlier this week, vigorous and sometimes violent protests broke out near U.S. embassies around the world over the “Innocence of Muslims,” an obscure film mocking the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizer, child molester and ruthless killer.

Two months after the film’s trailer was posted online on YouTube, and days after it got attention in Egyptian media, Cairo residents first expressed their ire Tuesday, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks, with protests targeting the American embassy.

Outpourings soon spread like wildfire across the Muslim world. As a result, Western diplomats found themselves and their missions under siege, even as American leaders criticized the film and emphasized the U.S. government had nothing to do with it.

Afterward, U.S. officials said Marine FAST teams, with about 50 members each, were being dispatched to Libya, Sudan and Yemen to protect U.S. diplomatic missions in those countries.

But Sudanese officials rebuffed the U.S. plan to send in troops, insisting their own security forces could protect the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum. And Yemen’s parliament issued a statement early Sunday vehemently opposing the presence of U.S. troops in the country.

One nation that hasn’t voiced opposition to a small contingent of U.S. troops is Libya. Libyan officials have said they are cooperating closely with U.S. authorities in investigating Tuesday’s attack in Benghazi, which they have strongly condemned.

“I’m convinced that they want to do everything possible to be able to respond to what happened there,” Panetta said of Libyan officials. “And I think they are taking steps on the security side to provide better security. … I think they are making a strong effort to try to respond to this crisis and try to deal with the issues involved.”

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