WASHINGTON - US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will meet Egypt's new Islamist President Mohamed Mursi next week and hold talks with the country's top general during a trip to the Middle East and North Africa, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

Besides Egypt, Panetta will travel to Israel, Jordan and Tunisia next week, the Pentagon said without disclosing the dates of each visit.

Panetta's trip to Egypt comes on the heels of a mid-July visit there by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who also met Mursi and Egypt's top general, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Top on the agenda will be Egypt's turbulent democratic transition, which has seen the military wrestling for influence with the new president.

"The secretary is very much looking forward to meeting with senior Egyptian officials and to encourage them to continue the political transition that's taking place," said Pentagon spokesman George Little. "I wouldn't want to get too far ahead of the discussions, since they're taking place next week."

In Israel and Jordan, Panetta will "engage close allies who share our concerns about Syria and Iran," Little said.

The United States said on Thursday it appeared that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad were "lining up" for a massacre in the city of Aleppo, but again ruled out military intervention in the conflict.

Clinton visited Israel on July 16, saying the two countries were "on the same page" in their determination to prevent Iran from achieving what the West fears is its goal of building a nuclear bomb.

On Wednesday,Defense Minister Ehud Barak called for major powers to speed up efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program, cautioning it would be tougher to confront it once Tehran managed to cross an atomic threshold.

Israeli media interpreted Barak's comments as pushing for a possible Israeli strike against Iran, which denies pursuit of atomic weapons and says its nuclear program is peaceful.

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