By David Alexander

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany (Reuters) - If Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was unsettled by making headlines that jangled nerves from Kabul to Washington on his trip to Europe this week, it didn't dampen his infectious chuckle as he headed to a security summit in Germany on Friday.

He cracked jokes, spun stories and offered sincere thanks to troops at Ramstein Air Base and Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, whose job it is to nurse wounded troops back to health, and in some cases prepare their bodies for burial.

At Landstuhl he passed out commemorative medallions with the Secretary of Defense's logo - the so-called "challenge coins" popular among the U.S. military services - to 145 nurses celebrating the 111th birthday of the Army Nurse Corps.

"The coins, they're not worth a hell of a lot, but they might be worth more than the euro," he said to laughter. "Wait and see. Hold on to them."

It was exactly the kind of unguarded remark that has been a hallmark of the 73-year-old California native's seven months as Pentagon chief.

As he hopscotched across Germany to the 48th Munich Conference on Security Policy, pundits were still scratching their heads over the meaning of a series of headlines he has generated since departing Washington en route to a NATO summit in Brussels.

On the plane Wednesday he told reporters U.S. forces were hoping to transition out of their combat role in Afghanistan by mid- to late-2013. Afghan forces would take the lead on combat operations, he said, with U.S. troops advising and supporting.

That generated a stream of headlines about American forces halting combat a year earlier than expected, setting off alarm bells in Kabul, puzzling defense ministers at NATO and drawing repeated explanations from U.S. officials about what Panetta meant.

"CONCERN ABOUT MISPERCEPTIONS"

Panetta explained again on Thursday evening that U.S. forces were hoping to hand over the lead combat role to Afghans in 2013 and would focus on a training and assisting, but would still be participating in combat operations with Afghan troops as necessary through 2014.

NATO officials said while it hadn't been spelled out in detail, they had always known a transition to Afghan lead would have to take place by mid-2013 to meet the goal of handing over full responsibility by the end of 2014 because the handover process takes 12 to 18 months.

"I think there was a recognition that it is very difficult to explain this," a senior defense official said when asked why there had been such confusion.

Panetta's fellow defense ministers appeared to take it in stride, but the U.S. defense official said, "I think there was concern about misperceptions" as a result of the way Panetta's remarks were interpreted.

By the time the U.S. defense secretary, looking tired after a day of meetings and dealing with press confusion, revisited the issue with reporters, The Washington Post had dropped a new bombshell.

It published an article by columnist David Ignatius saying Panetta believes Israel may attack Iran over its nuclear program as early as April.

"Frankly, I'm not going to comment on that," Panetta told reporters, including Ignatius, who was traveling with the Pentagon press corps.

"David Ignatius, you know, can write what he will, but with regards to what I think and what I view, I consider that an area that belongs to me and nobody else," he said.

U.S. defense officials were still declining to comment on the article on Friday as Panetta, back to his jovial self, concluded his visit to NATO with a small victory.

The alliance, after nearly two decades of discussions, agreed to buy its own reconnaissance aircraft - five unmanned Global Hawk surveillance planes - a capability it sorely needed during last year's Libya conflict.

"It's a good deal, it's a big deal and it's a done deal," a U.S. official quoted Panetta as saying after the agreement was approved.

And then he was off to Ramstein in Germany, where he talked to troops, explained the new budget and even managed to make smaller pay raises a few years from now sound not so bad.

One trooper stepped forward to ask him, with his CIA background and access to all the Defense Department's intelligence, who would win Sunday's American football championship, the Super Bowl.

"I ... was really pushing for the 49ers," he chortled ruefully, referring to the San Francisco team that lost in the playoffs. "But there's always next year."

(Editing by Xavier Briand)




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