By Chris Lawrence, with reporting from pool producer Larry Shaughnessy
(CNN) U.S. Marines waiting for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to speak at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan Wednesday were ordered to leave the room and place their weapons outside.
The request, relayed by Sgt. Maj. Brandon Hall, was unusual because it's not customary to disarm for a defense secretary visit, but the Marines did as they were told. About two dozen unarmed Afghan soldiers also were in attendance.
Panetta arrived in Afghanistan Wednesday for a two-day visit amid heightened tensions after an American soldier allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians in their homes Sunday.The order to disarm came from Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, who commands troops in Helmand province.
Asked about the move, Hall told the New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller: "Somebody got itchy, that's all I've got to say. Somebody got itchy; we just adjust."
Gurganus later told reporters the decision had nothing to do with the weekend shooting, and said it was because the Afghan soldiers in attendance were unarmed and he did not want them treated differently than the Marines.
"This is not a big deal," Gurganus said. But he then added that "you've got one of the most important people in the world in the room," referring to Panetta. When it was pointed out that this had not been the custom, Gurganus - who is new to the post - replied, "There's a new sheriff in town."
A senior defense official told CNN that Gurganus made the decision to have all coalition troops disarm on Tuesday, but "the order never got passed down the line to the individual units. So, unfortunately, it wasn't until all the Marines were sitting down Wednesday that anyone realized what the general really wanted. It looked bad. But at that point they needed to comply with the order."
Several Marines said they had never seen a situation like this, although they do not believe the decision resulted from any security concerns..