ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta began a five-day Mideast trip Sunday to consult with the new Islamist leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and to meet with long-standing allies Israel and Jordan.
High on the agenda at each stop is expected to be the accelerating crisis in Syria, which potentially has grave implications for Israel. The Jewish state fears the unrest will spill over the border and that the long-quiet Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967, will become a new Islamist front against Israel.
Syria has strong ties to Iran, Israel's most fearsome enemy, and to Palestinian and Lebanese militants who have warred with Israel. Jordan's worries include a potential refugee crisis on its border.
Panetta's press secretary, George Little, said the trip is intended to affirm a U.S. commitment to stability in the Middle East and North Africa at a time the U.S. military is shifting more of its attention to Asia.
"That will require strengthening traditional alliances with countries like Israel and Jordan and building strong partnerships with new democratic governments," Little said last week in previewing the trip.
Panetta will be in Jerusalem just days after a visit by U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who has been highly critical of President Barack Obama's approach to Israel.
Panetta is expected to highlight U.S. cooperation with Israel on building more effective missile defenses, including the Iron Dome system that is designed to shoot down short-range rockets and artillery shells. That air defense system was developed in response to Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, who fired thousands of rockets, mostly short-range Katyushas, into northern Israel. The U.S. has provided $205 million for the project, and on Friday, Obama announced the release of a further $70 million.
In Tunis, Panetta plans to meet with his Tunisian counterpart as well as President Moncef Marzouki, whose moderate Islamist Ennahda Party had been banned under the previous government.
Panetta is scheduled to visit the North Africa American Cemetery near Tunis, resting place for 2,841 U.S. military members killed in the World War II invasion and occupation of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia in 1942-43. Among them is Army Air Corps pilot Foy Draper, who won a gold medal in the 1936 Summer Olympics as a member of the U.S. 400 meter relay team. He was killed on a mission over Tunisia in January 1943.