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U.S. defense chief embarks on visit to N. Africa, Middle East

(Xinhua)

08:23, July 30, 2012

WASHINGTON, July 29 (Xinhua) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta began on Sunday a trip to North Africa and the Middle East "to meet with leaders and take the temperature of a crucial and volatile region," the American Forces Press Service reported.

Panetta will visit Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan, during which he "will touch on both big buckets of issues" related to the dramatic changes in the region and the challenges posed by Syria, Iran and extremism, a senior U.S. defense official was quoted as saying.

The region has witnessed dramatic changes in the past year and a half, amid a wave of protests that have taken place in many countries since the Arab Spring starting from Tunisia. Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in last August after NATO intervention in its conflict on the rebel side, while former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has also been forced to step down amid violent protests.

Violence has engulfed Syria since last March, as rebel forces backed by the West have been fighting in many parts of the country to try to overthrow the government led by President Bashar al- Assad.

In Tunisia, Panetta plans to lay out the roadmap for the future military-to-military relationship between the two countries in his meetings with leaders there. "The military has played a positive role in Tunisia, and we want that to continue," the defense official said.

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