News reports say the U.S. military has authorized an expansion of covert operations in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and Central Asia to disrupt terrorist groups in the region.
The media reports, released Tuesday, say the head of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, signed a secret directive last September authorizing U.S. Special Operations troops to be sent to both friendly and hostile nations that include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia.
The information was first reported by The New York Times. The report says the order would allow for reconnaissance that could assist military strikes in Iran if tensions over its nuclear program were to escalate.
Defense Department officials also told the Times the new order would allow for more systematic and long-term covert operations than in previous administrations.
Officials have told media organizations the program's goals would be to build networks and ties with local security forces that could "penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy" al Qaida and other militant groups.
The Times says it withheld some details in the seven-page directive in response to a U.S. Central Command official's concerns about troop safety.
Some Pentagon officials told the Times they are concerned the new policy could strain relations with friendly nations in the region and incite anger in hostile nations such as Iran or Syria.
There was no immediate official comment on the report from the Pentagon or White House.