Panetta will visit Libya and Iraq

Panetta will visit Libya and Iraq

Panetta will visit Libya and Iraq

People protest against the NTC, seeking more transparency in Benghazi. REUTERS photo

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says he will visit Libya, becoming the first Pentagon chief to travel to the embattled country, which is emerging from an eight-month civil war.

Speaking yesterday to U.S. troops, Panetta said he will also travel to Iraq in the coming days for a ceremony that will shut down the U.S. military mission there after nearly nine years at war, Associated Press reported.

Panetta’s plan to visit Libya comes amid ongoing violence there, including recent clashes between revolutionary fighters and national army troops near Tripoli’s airport. Panetta says the U.S. wants to help Libyans move in the right direction as the people take back their country. With military assistance from the U.S. and NATO, Libyans ousted and later killed longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi earlier this year. Panetta will also visit Turkey later this week for talks that are expected to focus on enhancing defense cooperation and the ongoing fight against terrorism, according to diplomatic sources.

Meanwhile, the National Transitional Council declared Dec. 12 that Benghazi will be Libya’s economic capital, in a decision following the country’s first protests against the ruling body and its chief, AgenceFrance-Presse reported. “Benghazi will be the economic capital of Libya,” NTC member Abdelrazzak al-Aradi told a news conference, confirming that the decision was taken after protests against the NTC and its chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil.

As the U.S. winds down operations in Iraq and begins its methodical withdrawal from Afghanistan, the U.S. military has increasingly focused on Africa, particularly the north, where insurgents have found sanctuary, Associated Press reported. Panetta said that U.S. operations against al-Qaeda are now concentrating on key groups in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa. Panetta said efforts against the al-Qaeda affiliates depend on American partnerships with countries like Djibouti. The military base in this tiny port nation in the Horn of Africa is the launch point for U.S. drones used for intelligence, surveillance and, at times, strikes against insurgents in terror hotspots. “It’s fair to say that the United States is intent on going after al-Qaeda wherever they locate, and making sure they have no place to hide,” said Panetta, who is making his first trip to Djibouti. A key U.S. ally in this region, Djibouti has the only U.S. base in sub-Saharan Africa. It hosts the military’s Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.