Defense chief Leon Panetta to visit Middle East

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By LOLITA C. BALDOR, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will head to the Middle East next week and is expected to speak with Israeli and Jordanian officials about the conflict in Syria and worries about Iran.

His visit comes at a critical time, as the U.S. considers its options for more direct involvement in Syria's civil war. Reports this week suggested that Iranian leaders will support Syrian President Bashar Assad's crackdown.

Pentagon press secretary George Little said the U.S. doesn't believe that any al-Qaida affiliates have a significant presence inside the Syrian opposition battling Assad's government. He said that while the U.S. military is doing prudent planning on options for Syria, he provided no details.

Little said Panetta also plans to meet with the Egypt's newly elected President Mohammed Morsi and will stop in Tunisia, showing America's commitment to the government reforms in those two countries.

His Middle East trip comes days after Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's scheduled visit to Israel for meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others.

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