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Defense Secretary Leon  Panetta, in an exclusive interview with Fox News, said that the stealth  drone campaign along the Iran-Afghanistan border will “absolutely” continue  despite the loss of a valuable and sophisticated drone to Iran.
The mysterious loss of the RQ-170 Sentinel drone has  revealed not only that the U.S. was spying on Iran, but also that the program  was being run from Shindad Air Base in western  Afghanistan.
Panetta would not comment directly on what that  drone was doing over Iran, but he said the U.S. military has no plans to halt  the drone operation out of western Afghanistan.
“Those operations have to be protected in order to  do the job and the mission that they’re involved with,” he said.
When asked if he would continue those missions as  they have been conducted out of Afghanistan, he responded with one word:  “Absolutely.” 
Panetta would not speculate about whether the  Sentinel drone had been felled by a cyber attack or a high-tech jamming  device.
“You can make all kinds of guesses at this point.  Obviously there’s nothing that you can rule out and nothing that you can rule in  right now,” he said.
President  Obama said on Monday he would not comment on the situation beyond saying the  U.S. has asked to Iranians to give it back. “We we will see how the Iranians  respond,” he said.
Panetta will travel later this week to Baghdad  for a ceremony to mark the end of the U.S.war  in Iraq. The secretary did not agree with the assessment of Prime Minister Nouri  al-Maliki in Washington Monday suggesting Iranian interference in Iraq would  disappear once all U.S. troops have gone home.
“I think you’ve got be very cautious about Iran and  what they are doing,” Panetta said. “I suspect in one way or another they are  going to try to influence what happens there.”
He added the U.S. will keep 40,000 troops in bases  across the Gulf to counter any potential Iranian threat.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, a high-ranking Iranian  official said Iran’s military will practice sealing off the Strait of Hormuz,  the world’s most important oil transport channel. It’s a provocative move that  illustrates Iran’s capability of disrupting the world’s oil supply.
Pentagon spokesman Doug Wilson responding saying  although he has no information on those specific exercises, the U.S. is  “committed to the free and safe passage in international waters.”
Anything that affects that, Wilson said, would be  “detrimental.”
Back in Kabul, the defense secretary will also be  assessing how to heal the relationship with Pakistan  after it closed border crossings and key supply routes in response to the Nov.  26 NATO  air strike that killed 24 Pakistani troops.
Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in  Afghanistan, said that just before that incident, he went to see Pakistan’s  General Kayani for meetings he hoped would “bring the relationship back to a  high level of coordination.”
But in the aftermath of the incident on Nov. 26,  “that has chilled to some extent,” Allen said.

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