SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: Mister, minister and my fellow ministers thank you for this opportunity to be able to meet with you and to work with you in trying to improve our security relationship in the Pacific Region.
This is my first trip to the Pacific as Secretary of Defense. And I appreciate and honored to have the opportunity to join the ASEAN defense ministers in this discussion. I indicated to them how important we in the United States feel about the Pacific Region. We are a Pacific nation; we will remain a Pacific force, a Pacific presence, and we will be a force for peace and prosperity in this part of the world. We discussed issues related to maritime security to proliferation and to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, along with other issues. And the ministers were very frank in presenting their views.
I appreciated receiving their views and their thoughts, and I told them that I would do everything possible in my role as secretary of defense to work with them to improve assistance to each of their countries and to develop a relationship in which the security of this region will be strengthened for the future.
Thank you for that opportunity.
Q: Mr. Secretary, on Iraq if you don’t mind – (Inaudible) – about the concerns you had about Iranian-backed militias linked to the deaths of numerous U.S. service members. U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq and – (inaudible) – concerned about Iranian influence in that country. With the departure of U.S. combat troops at the end of this year, are you afraid there will be a vacuum that – (inaudible)?
SEC. PANETTA: The fact is that first and foremost that Iraq itself has developed an effective force to be able to deal with those threats. And what we’ve seen in the past when we had concerns about what Iran was doing was that Iraq itself conducted operations against those Shi’a extremist groups. And we appreciated that. They did it in conjunction with our support and thought they did a great job and that they’ll continue to do that.
Secondly, I should point out that we’re going to maintain, as we do now, a significant force in that region of the world. We have about 40,000 troops in that region, about 23,000 in Kuwait, along with a large number of troops in other countries as well, along with the fact that we have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. So we will always have a force that will be present and that will deal with any threats from Iran.
Q: Mr. Secretary, one more question. I was wondering if you put back on your CIA hat – (inaudible) – tell us what would be –
SEC. PANETTA: I wouldn’t be doing that if I was in the CIA.
Q: I was hoping you can tell us what you think of the death of the crown prince and what the ramifications are for the future of Saudi Arabia and to the monarchy there.
SEC. PANETTA: As I indicated, obviously, we express our condolences to King Abdullah and to all the people of Saudi Arabia for the passing of the crown prince. As always, Saudi Arabia has been an important ally in that part of the world, will continue to work with them and do whatever we can to assist them as we have in the past.
I’ve got a call in to Saudi Arabia to express my condolences to them, but I believe that we can have an effective transition in Saudi Arabia with regards to the defense area. We’ve been able to have these transitions before. I feel confident that we can go through this transition as we move through a new defense minister.
MR. SECRETARY: Okay. Enough. Thank you.