U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki meet at the Presidential Palace on Monday, in Tunis. Sec. Panetta is on a five day trip to the Middle-East with stops in Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan before returning to Washington. (Mark Wilson / AFP)
TUNIS — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday said Washington was ready to help Tunisia develop its capacities to combat Al-Qaeda, and urged closer regional cooperation in fighting the terror network.
“The U.S. Department of Defense stands ready to help Tunisia to ensuring regional stability, to strengthen the capabilities of its defense institutions,” Panetta told reporters after meeting President Moncef Marzouki.
It was the first visit to the North African country by a US defense secretary since the popular uprising that toppled Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January last year and touched off the Arab Spring.
“I was pleased to begin a dialogue about how we can deepen that cooperation in the range of common concerns, counter violent extremism and terrorism,” Panetta said, adding the U.S. and Tunisian militaries “have long been partners.”
“There are a number of efforts that we can assist them with to develop the kind of operations, the kind of intelligence that will help effectively deal with that threat,” the US official explained.
Panetta urged the Arab Maghreb Union, the dormant five-country bloc that groups Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, to develop counter-terrorism efforts to confront Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and protect their borders.
Foreign ministers from the group, meeting in Algiers earlier this month, agreed on the need to forge a common security pact in response to the upheavals in the region.
AQIM, which stems from a group started in the late 1990s by radical Algerian Islamists and formally subscribed to Al-Qaeda’s ideology in 2007, has been boosted by the political turmoil in Mali.
Security experts say the armed Islamist groups that have occupied the vast desert terrain in northern Mali are acting under the aegis of the North African Al-Qaeda franchise.
Panetta said Washington also stands ready to help train the Tunisian armed forces at an institutional level, and hailed the “positive role” they have played since the revolution.
The U.S. official was speaking to the media during a visit to a military cemetery in Tunis where thousands of U.S. servicemen killed in North Africa during World Word II are buried.
Panetta’s one-day trip to Tunisia is the first stop on a regional tour that will also take him to Egypt, Israel and Jordan.