WASHINGTON, July 30 (Reuters) - Government forces in Syria should be held together when President Bashar al-Assad is forced from power, the U.S. defense secretary said on Monday, warning that the mistakes of the Iraq war must not be repeated.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in an interview with CNN during a visit to Tunisia, said maintaining stability in Syria would be important under any scenario that sees Assad leave power.
"I think it's important when Assad leaves, and he will leave, to try to preserve stability in that country," Panetta said.
"The best way to preserve that kind of stability is to maintain as much of the military and police as you can, along with security forces, and hope that they will transition to a democratic form of government. That's the key."
The Bush administration's decision to disband Iraqi security forces, made shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, was an important catalyst for the bloody civil war that followed.
Critics said that decision, made by senior Pentagon officials and announced by the head of the U.S. occupation authority at the time, Paul Bremer, set loose tens of thousands of armed, disaffected young men.
Asked whether security forces should remain intact in a post-Assad Syria, or whether they should be disbanded as they were in Iraq, Panetta said it was "very important that we don't make the same mistakes we made in Iraq."
Clashes rage between rebel fighters and government forces in Syria as the country's divided opposition seeks to oust Assad in a 16-month-old revolt that shows no signs of nearing a conclusion.
Government forces have been pounding rebels with tanks and air strikes, and last week Damascus threatened to use chemical weapons if foreign countries intervened in the conflict.
The Obama administration has said it is stepping up assistance to Syrian opposition members, although the support has remained limited to non-lethal equipment.
There are concerns, however, about what might follow Assad in a strategically positioned country rife with religious and ethnic tensions.
"Particularly when it comes to things like the chemical sites, they do a pretty good job of securing those sites," Panetta said, referring to Syrian forces.
"If they suddenly walked away from that, it would be a disaster to have those chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands, hands of Hezbollah or other extremists in that area."
Lebanon's powerful Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah has publicly tied its fate to Assad. (Reporting by Missy Ryan; editing by Mohammad Zargham)