U.S. has sent troops to Jordan-Syria border, Panetta says


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The United States has sent troops to Jordan to help improve its military capabilities in case the fighting in Syria spills onto its soil, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters Wednesday in Brussels. Panetta made the remarks at a NATO meeting of defense ministers. The revelation comes at a time of growing fears that the chaos and bloodshed in Syria for more than a year and a half could spread beyond the country across the Middle East.

Turkey has retaliated against Syria after repeated attacks on its territory, including shelling last week that killed five people. Though Turkey has said it does not want war, the two countries have continued to trade fire this week.

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In Jordan, the enduring conflict has ramped up fears over the fate of Syrian chemical weapons and pushed more than 100,000 refugees into the country as winter approaches.

Defense spokesman Lt. Col. Jack Miller said in an email that the exact number of troops was “an issue we don’t want to get into,” but that the U.S. had been working closely with Jordan “on a variety of issues related to Syria for some time now,” including the refugees.

The number of refugees who have left Syria for Jordan is expected to swell to 250,000 by the end of the year, according to the United Nations. The U.S. has provided medical kits, water tanks and other humanitarian aid to help Jordan care for refugees, Miller wrote.

The allies are also eyeing the security of chemical and biological weapons stockpiled by Syria, a threat that President Obama has warned could change the tack toward the continuing conflict. If the Syrian government unleashes those weapons, Obama said, that would be a ‘red line’ triggering U.S. military intervention.

The Wednesday statement comes as the Obama administration has been under fire from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who charged Monday that Obama had done too little to bolster the cause of rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad. The New York Times reported on the operation Tuesday, citing American officials familiar with the operation who said the force consisted of more than 150 planners and other specialists and was based north of Amman. An unnamed senior U.S. defense official cited the same number to the Agence France-Presse.

In a statement that appeared to anticipate questions about why the operation was revealed now, Miller wrote that the Department of Defense’s willingness to publicly discuss any deployment was based on agreements between those deployed and the host nation.



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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles