Panetta: No Plans to Bolster Forces in Middle East
The U.S. military has no major plans to bolster its forces in the Middle East despite a week of violent protests targeting diplomatic outposts, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Sunday, according to AFP.
With a substantial force already deployed in the region coupled with two U.S. Marine counter-terrorism teams sent to Libya and Yemen, the military has the ability to respond as necessary to protect American diplomats, Panetta told reporters before arriving in Tokyo on an Asian tour.
“We do have a major presence in the region,” he said, adding, “Having said that we've enhanced that with FAST (Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team) teams and others so that if they are requested, they can respond more quickly.”
He said at the moment there was not a need for dispatching additional forces to the region beyond what was requested by the State Department to safeguard diplomatic outposts.
“I don't anticipate a situation right now where we would have to do something on our own," he said.
“Our approach right now is not do anything unless requested by the State Department."
Panetta praised the Libyan government's efforts to strengthen security at U.S. missions and search for those behind the deadly attack.
"I think they are making a strong effort to try to respond to this crisis and deal with the issues involved," he said.
Asked if Al-Qaeda militants were to blame for the assault in Benghazi, Panetta said: "That remains to be determined. That's part of what the investigation will determine."
But he said that Al-Qaeda's branches in North Africa remained a serious threat and the United States would keep up relentless pressure on the extremists.
"We have to continue to go after Al-Qaeda wherever they are and whatever affiliates they have that are engaged in terrorism," said Panetta.
Panetta expressed cautious optimism that the violence in Arab countries over the film mocking Mohammed had begun to recede.
"Today there continue to be some demonstrations. It would appear there's some leveling off of the violence that we thought might take place," he said, adding, “We will have to remain very vigilant.”
Earlier on Sunday, Libya's parliament chief announced that some 50 people had been arrested in connection with the killing of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in the attack in Benghazi.
Mohammed al-Megaryef, president of the Libyan National Congress, said "a few" of those who joined in the attack were foreigners who had entered Libya "from different directions, some of them definitely from Mali and Algeria."
"The others are affiliates and maybe sympathizers," he added.
Megaryef said the government has learned the attack was not the result of spontaneous anger over the anti-Islam movie, saying, "It was planned, definitely, it was planned by foreigners, by people who entered the country a few months ago. And they were planning this criminal act since their arrival.”
Washington's ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, however offered a very different account, saying the assault began with a "spontaneous" protest over the video.
"Our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous -- not a premeditated -- response to what had transpired in Cairo," Rice said.
"We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the consulate to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo," she told ABC's "This Week".
"And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons. And it then evolved from there."
Last week, however, U.S. sources told CNN they do not believe the attack in Benghazi was a reaction to the film but rather that it was “a clearly planned military-type attack.”
(Arutz Sheva’s North American Desk is keeping you updated until the start of Rosh Hashanah in New York. The time posted automatically on all Arutz Sheva articles, however, is Israeli time.)