By David Alexander
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A team of U.S. military planners is in Jordan to help the Amman government grapple with Syrian refugees, bolster its military capabilities and prepare for any trouble with Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Wednesday.
The team, led by special operations forces and comprising about 150 troops, mainly from the U.S. Army, is constructing a headquarters building in Amman from which to work with Jordanian forces on joint operational planning and intelligence sharing, a senior defense official said.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the team had been in Jordan for several months and was there when Panetta visited King Abdullah in early August. The number of troops in the team has since grown, but there are no specific plans to expand it further, the official said.
"We have been working with Jordan for a period of time now ... on a number of the issues that have developed as a result of what's happened in Syria," Panetta told a news conference in Brussels.
Panetta said those issues included monitoring chemical weapons sites "to determine how best to respond to any concerns in that area."
A second U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the small team of planners was not engaged in covert operations and had been housed at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center, north of the capital, Amman, since the early summer.
While the United States has not intervened militarily in Syria, President Barack Obama has warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that any attempt to deploy or use chemical or biological weapons would cross a "red line" that could provoke U.S. action.
Late last month, Panetta said Syria had moved some of its chemical weapons stocks to better secure them, but stressed that the country's main chemical weapons sites remained intact and secure under government control.
The U.S. military planners in Jordan are not focused solely on chemical weapons.
"We've also been working with them to develop their own military operational capabilities in the event of any contingency there," Panetta said.
"And that's the reason we have ... a group of our forces there," he added.
A public website detailing the training center in Jordan can been seen at http://www.kasotc.com/KASOTC_Site/Home.html
About 294,000 refugees fleeing 18 months of conflict in Syria have already crossed into Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, or await registration there, the U.N. refugee agency estimated late last month. Up to 700,000 Syrian refugees may flee abroad by the end of the year, it estimated.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Warren Strobel and Peter Cooney)