Mike Mullen
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Navy Admiral Michael Mullen Photo by Reuters
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The highest-ranking U.S. military officer praised the "professionalism" of Egypt's armed forces in a phone call with a top Egyptian commander on Sunday, as Egyptian troops refrained from a crackdown on protesters.

Egypt receives about $1.3 billion a year in U.S. military aid, assistance that could be jeopardized if the army joined last week's harsh police crackdown. Police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons against protesters calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down.

Protesters who have rocked the nation of 80 million people, a key U.S. ally in the Arab world, complain about surging prices and the gap between rich and poor but have also called for a new political system. The unrest has killed more than 100 people.

The Pentagon urged restraint from Egypt's military last week in face-to-face talks in Washington with one of its top officers -- Lieutenant General Sami Enan, chief of staff of the armed forces.

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke on Sunday with Enan, who provided him an update, a spokesman said.

"The Chairman expressed his appreciation for the continued professionalism of the Egyptian military," said Capt. John Kirby. "Both men reaffirmed their desire to see the partnership between our two militaries continue, and they pledged to stay in touch."

The top U.S. diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on Sunday also commended Egyptian military restraint, saying it was "working to try to differentiate between peaceful protesters -- who we all support -- and potential looters and other criminal elements who are obviously a danger to the Egyptian people."

It remains to be seen if the Egyptian armed forces, considered the most powerful institution in the country, will seek to keep Mubarak in power in the face of mass protests, or decide he is a liability.

Egypt's military -- the world's 10th largest with more than 468,000 members -- have been a central force in politics since army officers staged an overthrow of the monarchy in 1952.

All four Egyptian presidents since then have come from the military, now led by Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, whom U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also spoke to over the weekend.

The Pentagon declined to provide details on Gates' conversation with Tantawi.

The Egyptian military has deep ties with the U.S. armed forces, staging large-scale joint exercises. There are some 625 U.S. military personnel stationed in Egypt.

The U.S. has also provided F-16 jet fighters, tanks, armored personnel carriers, Apache helicopters, anti-aircraft missile batteries and other equipment to the Egyptian military -- equipment it does not want to see used against peaceful protesters.

"We have sent a very clear message that we want to see restraint, we do not want to see violence by any security forces. And we continue to convey that message," Clinton told ABC television.