Oct. 5 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is in Brussels to confer with NATO allies on the future of Libya after his visit to Egypt to press its governing military council on the country’s transition to civilian rule.
“As long as there’s fighting that’s continuing in Libya, I suspect the NATO mission will continue,” Panetta told reporters in Cairo earlier yesterday.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization last month extended its military operations in Libya, where rebels are searching for former leader Muammar Qaddafi and trying to rout the rest of his loyalists.
“We still don’t know where Qaddafi is, so there are still some question marks with regards to the situation there,” Panetta said.
The conflicts in Libya and Afghanistan and the turmoil of the Arab Spring revolts in the Middle East are consuming most of Panetta’s attention on his second overseas trip since taking office July 1.
“It’s extremely important for the stability of this region that Egypt be able to develop a strong democracy,” Panetta said after meeting Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the military council that took power in February after weeks of demonstrations ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Panetta also said continued military aid to Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, is “in America’s interest.”
Egypt’s first parliamentary elections since the ouster of Mubarak are scheduled to start on Nov. 28 with balloting for the lower house of parliament. Voting for the upper house is due to begin on Jan. 29.
A joint session of the lower and upper houses is planned in March or April to appoint an assembly that will rewrite the country’s constitution. A presidential vote will take place 45 to 60 days after the results of a constitutional referendum are announced, the ruling military council said on Oct. 2.
“I think they’re making good progress,” Panetta said. “I really do have full confidence in the process that the Egyptian military is overseeing.”
Still, Panetta stressed the need to follow a clear timetable and said current emergency law would cast a shadow over elections were it to still be in place at voting time, according to an official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity. Panetta told the Egyptians that half steps were unlikely to satisfy the population, he said.
Since the ouster of Mubarak, an ally of the U.S. and Israel, there have been increasing calls by many Egyptians for ending the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The U.S. has publicly pressed Egypt’s new leaders to maintain the peace accord.
“It is clear in talking to the Egyptians that they are committed to the treaty, to enforcement of the treaty,” Panetta said.
Panetta, who stopped in Tel Aviv before going on to Cairo, said he has urged leaders of both countries to restore relations. Tensions between the two countries escalated after militants on Aug. 18 opened fire near the border on cars and buses close to the southern Israeli city of Eilat, killing eight Israelis. At least three Egyptian police officers were also killed.
Israeli officials have said the gunmen who killed the Israelis came from the Gaza Strip and entered Israel from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The area also has seen four bombings of a pipeline that carries natural gas to Israel and Jordan.
“One of the things that I strongly urged the field marshal, as well as others, to do is to do everything possible to try to provide better security in the Sinai,” Panetta said. “If they feel the need for additional support in order to be able to do the job there, we would be happy to work with them in providing that assistance.”
The NATO meetings in Brussels will focus largely on the status of the Libya operation and lessons learned from the joint efforts.
The U.S. provided extensive assistance to fill gaps European allies couldn’t address, such as refueling tankers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The Pentagon also sold allies supplies as basic as ammunition, highlighting the shortfalls in preparedness among the allies.
The Pentagon also supplied drones to help with air strikes and to monitor sensitive locations such as storage sites for mustard agent and chemical weapons precursors. The alliance agreed at its Lisbon summit in November for some members to finance a joint purchase of five Global Hawk unmanned aerial surveillance aircraft for future NATO use.
Panetta will encourage additional joint purchases and pooling of resources since all alliance members face economic crises and resulting defense budget cuts.
On Afghanistan, an increase in Taliban activity in the country’s north will be the subject of a special meeting during the NATO sessions. Germany’s minister of defense will lead the meeting of 18 countries working in regional command north which are seeking ways to reverse that trend, the senior official said.
--With assistance from Mariam Fam in Cairo. Editors: Terry Atlas, Jim Rubin.
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