CAIRO -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is seeking assurances from Egypt's new Islamist government that the country will remain a military partner at a time of political tumult in the Middle East and growing worry about Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Panetta arrived in Cairo on Tuesday for his first meeting with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Panetta also was meeting with the leader of Egypt's military, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.
Panetta's visit comes on the heels of Secretary of State Hillary Rodman Clinton, who was here earlier in July as the first member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet to meet with Morsi since he assumed the presidency in June.
Clinton said in Washington on Monday that the jury was out on whether Egypt's Islamist political parties will equally represent non-Muslims. She said the Obama administration's future relationship with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood party would depend on how they respect the rights of Coptic Christians, women and other minorities.
Speaking to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Clinton said Egypt was still grappling with the challenge of religious liberty as it seeks to establish a democracy after decades of dictatorship.
In his talks Tuesday, Panetta was expected to stress US support for the completion of a transition to civilian democratic rule, and to gauge Morsi's interest in maintaining long-standing U.S.-Egyptian military relations.
Panetta was last in Cairo in October, after the fall of longtime autocrat President Hosni Mubarak but prior to Morsi's election.
After his Cairo meetings Panetta was headed to Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. A potential Israeli military attack on Iran's nuclear sites was expected to be a major topic, but Panetta also planned to discuss with the Israelis the progress they are making on building an air defense system, known as the Iron Dome, which is designed to shoot down short-range rockets and artillery shells.
Panetta arrived in Cairo from Tunisia, where he held talks with that North African country's new Islamist leaders. He plans to end his trip with a stop Thursday in Jordan.