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Gates, Mullen quietly make known their stand on Quran burning

By Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent
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Pastor to burn Quran
  • Gates and Mullen plan no public condemnation of the Florida event, officials say
  • But both support Petraeus' comments of concern, their spokesmen add
  • U.S. commander and ambassador in Iraq issue statement against the burning

Washington (CNN) -- Top Pentagon leaders are letting it be known they do not plan to publicly condemn the potential burning of the Quran by a small church group in Florida, but they are now endorsing criticism leveled by Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has told top aides he "endorses" Petraeus' concerns about the repercussions if a Florida pastor goes through with plans to burn copies of the Quran, but according to aides neither Gates nor Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will make public statements on the matter.

Gates "strongly endorses what General Petraeus says," Marine Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters. Gates made the comments in a staff meeting, Lapan said.

Behind the scenes, senior military officials say they are in a tough spot because they cannot make statements against the right of free speech. So any public statements are focusing on the potential violence and threat to U.S. troops if the burning takes place.

Similarly, Mullen "shares the concerns" of Petraeus, according to his spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby. But Mullen "has nothing to add to what General Petraeus has said."

Kirby indicated Mullen does not plan to make any public statement because he believes Petraeus' concerns about security for U.S. troops are best articulated by military commanders on the ground.

Those military concerns are growing.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin, and U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey issued a joint statement saying:

"The threat by an individual in Florida to burn the Holy Qur'an on September 11 is, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has stated, disrespectful, divisive, and disgraceful. As the U.S. ambassador in Iraq and the commanding general of U.S. Forces-Iraq, we are committed to President Obama's vision of an enduring partnership between the government of the United States and the government of Iraq and between our two peoples based on shared principles of democracy, tolerance and mutual respect. "