U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is praising the NATO mission in Libya and has thanked troops for their campaign in the north African country. Panetta stopped at military bases in Naples and Sicily to assess the operation after attending a conference of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, where alliance officials said the mission is in its final stages.
The United States and NATO are weighing when to end the operation in Libya, and that question is what brought Panetta to military facilities in southern Italy involved in the Libya operation.
The defense secretary met behind closed doors with senior commanders in charge of the campaign. A senior defense official said much of the decision on when to end the mission depends on the outcome of fighting in Sirte. The official said Panetta and the commanders also discussed the importance of ensuring that the new Libyan leadership is able to provide security for civilians.
During his visit Friday to Allied Joint Force Command Headquarters in Naples, Panetta praised the mission that has helped Libyan revolutionary fighters drive the forces of former leader Moammar Gadhafi out of most of Libya. He said critics of the operation have been proven wrong.
In a session with U.S. troops, Panetta - who recently took over as Defense Secretary after serving as director of the Central Intelligence Agency - thanked the troops, and in the process made reference to the CIA's possession of Predator drones.
“Having moved from the CIA to the Pentagon, obviously I have a hell of a lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had in the CIA, although the Predators aren't bad,” Panetta said.
He said the U.S. military's greatest asset are its soldiers.
“I need to tell you that for all the planes, for all the ships, for all the submarines, for all of the sophisticated technology that we have, the most important weapon I have are the men and women who are willing to put on the uniform and fight for this country,” he said.
At a question-and-answer session, and in the frank style for which Panetta has become known, he joked with a soldier who raised his concerns about being stretched and overworked.
“You're telling me you're working your ass off?”
Panetta also addressed soldiers' concerns on whether Iraq's government will grant immunity to any U.S. troops who might remain in the country beyond December, when the U.S. is due to complete its pullout.
“I want to make damned sure that you're protected. So, we have to make that clear to the people we deal with that if they want the benefits of what we can provide, if they want the assistance, they want the training, if they want the operational skills that we can provide, then I think they have to understand that they've got to give us some protections in that process,” said Panetta.
Panetta then flew to the Sigonella Naval Air Base in Sicily - from where air missions to Libya are launched - to thank troops of the multi-national force. It was his last stop on a tour that also included visits to Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Egypt.