(PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

During a 30-minute talk and question-and-answer session with about 100 U.S. soldiers in Baghdad Monday, Panetta used plenty of salty language. Nothing X-rated, mind you, but definitely not diplomatic, either.

He told the troops that family support for service members “counted for a hell of a lot” and promised in turn that “I’m doing every damn thing to protect your families.” For emphasis, he added: “One thing you want to make damn sure of is that they’re taken care of.”

He noted that the region had “had a hell of a lot of turmoil” in recent years. And he said there was a downside to Iraq’s transition to a democratic system, pointing out that the coalition government has dragged its feet on making key cabinet appointments.

“Do they want to have a minister of defense, or don’t they want to have a minister of defense?” he wondered. “But dammit, make a decision.”

He also made the observation that Iraq is oil-rich, although the war has made it tough to keep the pipelines flowing. “This damn country has a hell of a lot of resources,” he said.

Asked by a soldier when NATO allies were going to start pulling their weight, Panetta didn’t hold back. “I’m a believer in partnerships, but when you talk about partnerships, dammit, you’ve got to be partners,” he said.

Panetta, a jovial former congressman from California, has also shown that he’s not afraid to make a point by using a risky combination of humor and religion.

During a tour of the war zone in Afghanistan Sunday, he told a group of Marines and sailors in Helmand province a joke about a rabbi and a priest who went to a boxing match. One of the fighters kept making the sign of the cross, and the rabbi asked the priest why — and whether it did any good.

“It doesn’t mean a damn thing unless you can fight,” the priest replied. The same goes for the military, Panetta said.