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Pentagon chief to address 'security challenges' in Mideast visit

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will fly to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel for talks on Iran's nuclear program and Syria's civil war
This trip will be Hagel's third to the Middle East in just over a year (AFP)

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will fly to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel next week for talks that are expected to focus on Iran's nuclear program and Syria's civil war, officials said Friday.

"This trip will be the secretary's third to the Middle East in just over a year, and it will advance America's regional strategy in that region," Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby told a news conference.

The tour was part of "our effort to work in a coordinated manner with allies and partners across the region to address common security challenges," Kirby said.

US officials have struggled to reassure Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, over an interim nuclear deal with Iran that the Saudis worry will embolden Tehran. The Gulf governments have also been dissatisfied with Washington's cautious approach to arming rebel forces in Syria.

In Saudi Arabia, Hagel was due to meet with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) defense ministers, a session he proposed during his visit to the region in December, Kirby said.

The meeting will offer a chance for Hagel "to underscore US security commitments in the Middle East and to reinforce the United States' unstinting policy of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and further destabilizing the region," Kirby said.

It will be the first US-GCC meeting of defense ministers since 2008, according to Kirby.

The gathering of Gulf ministers will also focus on coordinating "air and missile defense, maritime security and cyber defense," he said.

From Saudi Arabia, Hagel will travel to Jordan, where he will meet his counterpart there to discuss the raging civil war in neighboring Syria.

"This visit will highlight the US commitment to the defense of Jordan, where more than 1,000 US personnel are on the ground working closely with Jordanian defense authorities," Kirby said.

Hagel will wrap up his regional tour in Israel, where he is due to meet President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.

In Israel, Hagel planned to discuss efforts to bolster Israel's rocket and missile defenses, Kirby said.

On Tuesday Hagel warned Americans against isolationism, saying the United States could not afford to turn away from the world's crises.

Hagel's appeal coincides with a growing fatigue at home with the country's international commitments, after 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon chief acknowledged Americans were wary of foreign commitments but said the costs of pulling back from the world would carry even bigger risks.

The current era of "unprecedented prosperity" could not be taken for granted and had evolved partly due to America's diplomacy and military strength, Hagel said.

Even with the US withdrawal from Iraq and a drawdown in Afghanistan, Hagel said the American military currently has about 400,000 troops deployed around the world in nearly 100 countries.