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Panetta's priority: Preserving military

WASHINGTON -- On his first day as Pentagon chief, Leon Panetta said Friday that his top priorities are preserving U.S. military power despite budget cuts, defeating al-Qaida, stabilizing Afghanistan and forging a "real and lasting partnership" with Iraq.

Panetta huddled with the Joint Chiefs of Staff shortly after taking the oath as the nation's 23rd secretary of defense, signaling that he intends to follow the example of his predecessor, Robert Gates, in building ties with the military brass.

He said he would, like Gates, put a premium on advocating for the needs of troops and their families.

"Rest assured that . . . I will fight for you," he said in a Fourth of July video message to U.S. troops worldwide.

Panetta came to the Pentagon after 2 1/2 years as CIA chief, a tenure highlighted by the May 2 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. At age 73, Panetta is the oldest incoming defense secretary in history and the first Democrat to run the far-flung Defense Department since William J. Perry completed his tenure in January 1997.

With Panetta replacing Gates, the pieces of President Barack Obama's rejiggered national security team began falling into place. Panetta's replacement at the CIA, Army Gen. David Petraeus, was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday, as was Ryan Crocker, the veteran diplomat who takes over as U.S. ambassador in Kabul later this month.

In a written message to all military and civilian Pentagon employees, Panetta made clear that he recognizes the budget challenges he will face, and he pledged not to allow a money crunch to weaken the military.

"There will be no hollow force on my watch," he wrote.

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