Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, stung by disclosures that the Pentagon’s main mortuary had mishandled American war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan, ordered a review Thursday of why some cremated body parts were dumped in a landfill prior to 2008.

At a Pentagon news conference, Panetta also said he had ordered Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley to assess the disciplining of three officials at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware who were in charge when partial remains from several deceased service members were apparently lost.

The moves represented an about-face for Panetta, who two days ago commended the Air Force for the “thoroughness” of its investigation into mismanagement of the mortuary at Dover and said he supported the “disciplinary actions taken.”

Panetta said he was unaware at the time, however, that mortuary officials had routinely used a landfill to dispose of cremated body parts that were unidentifiable or that had been recovered on the battlefield after other remains had been returned to next of kin for burial.

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