SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA: I'm very honored to be here at the North African American Cemetery and Memorial. I would like to deeply thank the Tunisian government for granting the United States the use of this burial ground in perpetuity.
I just had the opportunity to pay my respects to the 2,841 U.S. troops that are buried here. And, if you saw the walls with the names of the 3,724 missing, they, too, have been memorialized here.
Seventy years ago this November, 1942, Allied powers launched the North African offensive. It began with Operation Torch, when U.S. and British troops came ashore near Algiers, Casablanca and Oran.
After six months of fierce fighting, and many lives that were lost, Tunisia was liberated from the Axis powers.
This stands as a monument to the bravery, heroism and sacrifice of those who fought in this campaign. The headstones in this cemetery remind us, as George Patton said, that wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men.
Led by the likes of Eisenhower, Bradley, Montgomery, Patton, these heroes broke a mighty German army and set the stage not just for the invasion of Sicily, but ultimately for the invasion of Normandy.
The North Africa campaign and the fight against Nazi Germany was one chapter in a story that has been unfolding for centuries. It is the story of people struggling to overcome tyranny and oppression.
This struggle, this story, to achieve basic human rights and freedoms, is guided by a simple dream: the dream to secure a better life for our children.
Today we see a new chapter in that story unfolding across the Middle East and North Africa, and that story began here in Tunisia more than 18 months ago. This is the birthplace of the Arab spring.
When the Tunisian people rose up in peaceful protest to demand democratic change, it not only inspired the region, it inspired the world.
I want the Tunisian people and their democratically elected leaders to know that America stands with that and that we, too, are inspired by their revolution.
For that reason, the United States stands ready to support the Tunisian people as they continue to strengthen their new democracy. We are ready to help Tunisia strengthen its economy and to strengthen our shared security.
Earlier today I had the opportunity to deliver this message personally to President Marzouki, to Prime Minister Jebali and to Minister of Defense Zbidi.
I also had the opportunity in my meetings today to commend the Tunisian armed forces on the positive role they are playing during this critical time of change.
Our militaries have long been partners. The revolution in Tunisia provides an opportunity for us to partner even more closely.
As a democracy, I believe Tunisia will be an even more important source of stability in this region. In my discussions today, I was pleased to begin a dialogue about how we can deepen that cooperation in a range of common concerns, from countering violent extremism and terrorism to ensuring regional stability.
I also conveyed that the United States Department of Defense stands ready to help Tunisia strengthen the capacity of its defense institutions as an important part of the broader effort to support Tunisia's democratic transition.
Across the region, this is a time of great change and turmoil and instability, but it is also a time of great opportunity to help improve the lives of people.
This memorial reminds all of us that the struggle to overcome tyranny and to secure that better life for our children comes with a heavy price. Freedom is not free.
For generations, the United States has been the world's greatest force in advancing peace and freedom and prosperity. We have paid a heavy price to protect our country, as witnessed by this memorial.
Today is no different. The United States is committed to helping people across the region and across the world to achieve the freedoms we enjoy in our democracy. And countries like Tunisia have paid the price for freedom.
For that reason, we are committed to working closely with countries like Tunisia. We are all grateful for the Tunisian government's partnership, and we are inspired by their example to the world that the torch of greater peace and freedom and democracy burns brightly in this historic land. Thank you.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SEC. PANETTA: Let me look at you (inaudible). (Laughter.)
Q: You said -- you said yesterday that the U.S. is going to tell Israel that it's prepared for contingencies with Iran if something were to happen. Can you be specific about what sort of contingencies you're prepared for to protect Israel?
And the Israeli leadership has been pretty clear that it's skeptical that the sanctions are convincing the Iranians to give up their pursuit of a bomb. How much time do you think is left for sanctions to work? How much time is on the -- is on the -- is on the table now? How much time do you think Israel will wait?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, first of all, the president has made clear and I've made clear that the United States will not tolerate an Iran that develops a nuclear weapon and that we are prepared to exercise all options to ensure that that does not happen. And I am not going to go into specific descriptions about what those options are, except to say that we have a full range of options in order to deal with that potential.
With regards to the sanctions and the impact of these sanctions, the international community has been strongly unified in imposing some very serious sanctions on Iran. And as a matter of fact, the international community will increase the impact of those sanctions within the next few months.
We recognize that these sanctions are having a serious impact in terms of the economy in Iran. And while the results of that may not be obvious at the moment, the fact is that they have expressed a willingness to try to negotiate with the P-5-plus-1 and they continue to seem interested in trying to find a diplomatic solution.
I think what we all need to do is to continue the pressure on Iran, economically and diplomatically, to take the right steps here, to negotiate, and to ultimately do what's right in joining the international family and abiding by international rules and requirements.
And we believe that the best course of action is to continue that pressure and continue that unity in the effort to convince them to do what's right.
Q: I'm (inaudible) from press agency.
(through translator): You mentioned -- you mentioned earlier the intention of the United States to fight extremism, and you also mentioned your support -- support for the United States to the Tunisian army. Is there a specific program that will be undertaken in this regard?
My second question, in addition to Tunisia, would you stop by other countries in the region?
SEC. PANETTA: Yes, I intend to stop by other countries on this trip, and to also discuss some similar issues that I'm discussing here in Tunisia.
With regards to the issue of extremism and terrorism, obviously we continue to have a concern about the actions of Al Qaida and those groups that are associated with Al Qaida.
We have since 9/11 strongly acted against Al Qaida and their leadership, not only going after bin Laden, but going after their key leadership to undermine their ability to conduct command and control efforts in order to plan attacks similar to 9/11. And we believe that we have seriously weakened their capability to do that.
Having said that, we continue to be concerned about continuing Al Qaida presence in places like Yemen and Somalia and in North Africa. And so for that reason, we strongly urge countries like Tunisia to develop a counterterrorism operation that can deal with that.
And there are a number of efforts that we can assist them with to develop the kind of operations, the kind of intelligence that would help them effectively deal with that threat. And they expressed a willingness to work with us on that effort.
Q: Mr. Secretary, yesterday you were asked whether in light of Syria's use of air power against its population, the establishment of a no-fly zone was something that was being seriously considered. You didn't say one way or the other. And I'm wondering whether that could be interpreted as meaning that it's not on the table period or in fact at some point you do see a role for military power in this (inaudible).
SEC. PANETTA: You know, it's always we look at a number of options when we're dealing with a crisis like Syria. But the key to dealing with that is to stress the international effort to -- to work to try to ensure that -- that Assad steps down and that Syria is given back to the Syrian people so that they can implement the kind of reforms, democratic reforms and transition that has been done here in Tunisia.
We believe that the -- the international effort to try to assist -- providing aid to the opposition, working together to ensure that the chemical sites are secure, working together to provide assistance and aid to the -- to humanitarian relief in that region, and working together to continue bringing strong diplomatic and economic pressure on that regime to do the right thing -- is the appropriate way to act.
As you know, efforts in the U.N. to go beyond that were blocked by Russia and China. That means that the rest of the international community has to work together to do what we can to try to ensure that -- that the right thing happens in Tunisia [sic: Syria].
This is a tragic moment. What's happening in Aleppo indicates the bankruptcy of Assad and the Assad regime in dealing with this issue. And ultimately there is no question in my mind that the issue is not whether Assad will step down, but when, and that will happen.
Q: Mr. Secretary, can Tunisia be safe base to fight AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], in Maghreb, first question.
SEC. PANETTA: I'm sorry. Say it again.
Q: Can Tunisia (inaudible) base, military base, or logistic base to fight AQIM in Maghreb.
Q: My second question is (inaudible) chapter (inaudible) can Syria be the next chapter in reshaping the world? Thank you.
SEC. PANETTA: With regard to -- I mean, the last point you made, I -- I've made very clear that -- that Tunisia is the birthplace of the Arab spring and it can be a model to the rest of the region about what democratic transition is all about.
This country, I think, has worked successfully to try to put the right reforms in place. And I know there's much to do here. You've got to develop a constitution. You've got to be able to put it in place. You have to have elections. But I have every confidence in talking to your leadership that they are committed to doing exactly that. And if that happened, I believe Tunisia can be truly a model for the rest of the region as to how to accomplish democratic transformation.
With regards to AQIM, we are concerned about that threat. I noticed and I noted that they are sponsoring an effort to -- to bring together the -- the Arab Maghreb Union. And I urged the leaders this morning to use that as an opportunity to work with those other countries to develop a strong regional effort to try to deal with AQIM and ensure that they do not find or achieve any kind of base from which to conduct terrorist acts on this region or the rest of the world.
OK? Thank you very much.