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U.S. missiles, jets to stay in Jordan as Syria crisis rages

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel testifies at a Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing on "Department Leadership." on Capit
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel testifies at a Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing on "Department Leadership." on Capit

By David Alexander and Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Saturday it will keep Patriot missiles and F-16 jet fighters in Jordan after joint military exercises end next week while Secretary of State John Kerry said a political solution to the civil war in neighboring Syria may be getting "out of reach."

The decision to put Patriot batteries - an air and missile defense system - in Jordan has been particularly controversial for Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main global ally.

Russia is worried the missiles could be used by the United States and its allies to impose a "no-fly" zone over Syria in the first direct Western military intervention in the conflict.

The Pentagon announced the action two days before President Barack Obama meets Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday at a G8 conference in Northern Ireland to discuss Syria.

The Patriot missiles could be used to protect U.S. ally Jordan against any possible missile attack as the Syrian war threatens to widen into a more regional, sectarian conflict.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel "has approved a request from the Kingdom of Jordan for a detachment of F-16s and Patriot Missiles to remain in Jordan following the conclusion of the Eager Lion Exercise next week," Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement.

"All other U.S. personnel assigned to Jordan for Eager Lion will depart at the conclusion of the exercise. The United States enjoys a longstanding partnership with Jordan and is committed to its defense," Little added.

Assad's forces are fighting insurgents in a two-year-old conflict.

Secretary of State John Kerry asked Iraq to do what it could to help halt new military supplies from reaching Assad's forces, the State Department said in a statement on Saturday that gave details of Kerry's telephone call on Friday with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

'OUT OF REACH'

"The secretary reaffirmed that the United States continues to work aggressively for a political solution with the goal of a second Geneva meeting, but that the use of chemical weapons and increasing involvement of Hezbollah demonstrates the regime's lack of commitment to negotiations and threatens to put a political settlement out of reach," the department said.

Jordan and Syria's other neighbors are increasingly nervous the Syrian civil war will spill over its borders.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday any attempt to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria using F-16s and Patriot missiles from Jordan would violate international law.

A U.S. official said earlier this month that the Eager Lion exercises - held annually with a theme of irregular warfare - include more than 8,000 service members from about 19 countries, running from June 9 to 20.

Jordan on June 6 threatened to expel Syria's ambassador after he warned the Jordanians that Syrian missiles could be used against the Patriot missile batteries.

Hagel said in April that the United States was dispatching U.S. Army planners to Jordan, bolstering efforts started last year to plan for contingencies related to Syria's chemical weapons and to prevent a spillover of violence across Jordan's border. A U.S. official said at the time that about 200 U.S. personnel would be involved.

Accusing Assad's forces of using chemical weapons, the White House said on Thursday the United States would supply direct military assistance to the rebels. A U.S. official said that meant sending them weapons supplies for the first time. The weapons likely will include rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, sources said on Friday.

Syria's government denies using chemical weapons.

The State Department also said Kerry, in his talks with the Iraqi foreign minister, expressed U.S. concern "about the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict on both sides." It said Kerry thanked Zebari for "discouraging Iraqis from joining the fight in Syria."

"The secretary further urged that Iraq take every possible measure to help end the military resupply of the Assad regime and thereby increase the pressure that will be necessary to advance a political solution," the State Department said.

(Additional reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Will Dunham and Eric Walsh)

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