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Panetta: Egypt "committed" to democratic gov't

Updated at 2:57 p.m. ET

(AP) CAIRO - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that Egypt's new president and its military chief have reassured him they will steer the country to full democracy.

"It's clear that Egypt, following the revolution, is committed to putting into place a democratic government," Panetta told reporters after meetings in Cairo with President Mohammed Morsi and Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.

It was Panetta's first encounter with Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who assumed the presidency in June. Panetta said it was clear to him that Morsi is "his own man."

But Panetta also offered praise to Tantawi, the country's military leader.

"Tantawi 's leadership, I believe, has been critical in overseeing a peaceful free and fair elections," Panetta said, noting he was pleased with Tantawi's stated commitment to full civilian rule.

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Panetta said both Egyptian leaders told him they will continue their country's cooperation with the United States in fighting the al Qaeda terrorist network.

The defense chief arrived in Cairo Tuesday seeking assurance that the country will remain a military partner at a time of political tumult in the Middle East and growing worry about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Panetta's visit comes on the heels of one by Secretary of State Hillary Rodman Clinton, who was the first member of President Obama's Cabinet to meet with Morsi since his election.

Clinton said in Washington on Monday that the jury was out on whether Egypt's Islamist political parties will equally represent non-Muslims. She said the Obama administration's future relationship with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood party would depend on how they respect the rights of Coptic Christians, women and other minorities.

Speaking to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Clinton said Egypt was still grappling with the challenge of religious liberty as it seeks to establish a democracy after decades of dictatorship.

In his talks Tuesday, Panetta stressed U.S. support for the completion of a transition to civilian democratic rule, and to gauge Morsi's interest in maintaining longstanding U.S.-Egyptian military relations.

Panetta was last in Cairo in October, after the fall of long-time autocrat President Hosni Mubarak but prior to Morsi's election.

After his Cairo meetings Panetta was headed to Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. A potential Israeli military attack on Iran's nuclear sites was expected to be a major topic, but Panetta also planned to discuss with the Israelis the progress they are making on building an air defense system, known as the Iron Dome, which is designed to shoot down short-range rockets and artillery shells.

Asked about news reports in Israel that Panetta plans to share American plan for potential war with Iran when he meets with Israeli leaders Wednesday in Jerusalem, Panetta said that is a "wrong characterization" of what he will talk about.

He said his talks in Jerusalem will be "more about what is the threat we are confronting" in Iran's nuclear program and sharing intelligence information.

Panetta arrived in Cairo from Tunisia, where he held talks with that North African country's new Islamist leaders. He plans to end his trip with a stop Thursday in Jordan. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is seeking assurances from Egypt's new Islamist government that the country will remain a military partner at a time of political tumult in the Middle East and growing worry about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

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