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Monday, July 14, 2008

Barack Obama heads to London for European tour

Democratic nominee likely to come under fire for appearing to backtrack on plans to pull out US troops from Iraq

Barack Obama will make his first trip as Democratic presidential nominee to London next week, at the start of a tour of Europe where a warm embrace may be overshadowed by his effort to explain how - and when - America’s military should disentangle itself from Iraq.

In his debut on the international stage Mr Obama will visit seven countries in as many days, with stops in Britain, France, Germany, Israel and Jordan. He is likely also to make undisclosed trips to Iraq and Afghanistan.

His appearance in London is expected to be fleeting, British sources said. Mr Obama’s advance team had made plain that he wants to get in and out of the city “as expeditiously as possible”.

A draft itinerary includes a meeting with the Prime Minister and a shorter conversation with David Cameron. He will also thank some of the London-based Americans who have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for his campaign.

Although Mr Obama’s aides emphasised yesterday that dates had not been finalised - and would not be confirmed for security reasons - British officials have pencilled in July 18 for the visit.

Reports in France and Germany suggest that he will visit Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel between July 24-25, while Israel is apparently preparing for his arrival between July 22-23. This would indicate the trip to Iraq and Afghanistan will take place after he leaves London and before he returns to Europe.

His visit to Berlin is likely to be the only moment when Mr Obama comes face to face with a European public that, according to opinion polls, adores him.

Der Spiegel magazine has quoted an Obama adviser saying that he wants to answer criticism that he had shown scant interest in Europe, having spent only 24 hours there in the past decade, and rekindle memories of John F. Kennedy's visit in 1963 when the youthful Democratic President declared: “Ich bin ein Berliner!”

Negotiations are under way with the office of Klaus Wowereit, the Berlin Mayor, to hold the speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate, close to where the Wall dividing the city into East and West once stood.

Advisers to Mrs Merkel are worried, though, that it would be tantamount to endorsing Mr Obama, an undue interference in a foreign election campaign. “The Brandenburg Gate is the best-known and most historically significant site in Germany,” a Chancellery official said, explaining why until now only elected presidents have been allowed to perform there.

The German Government would dearly like Mr Obama to find another platform, perhaps the town hall in the district of Schöneberg where Kennedy expressed his solidarity with West Berlin. Almost every other location in the capital has unfortunate historical associations. For example, the Olympic Stadium - where Hitler was enraged by the success of Jesse Owens, the black American athlete, in the 1936 Games - has been ruled out.

Attention in the US will focus on his trip to Iraq. Mr Obama has already begun to chip away at a once “rock-solid” commitment to withdrawing all US combat troops within 16 months, saying that he would use his visit to examine whether conditions were right for a pullout. David Axelrod, Mr Obama’s chief strategist, described the 16-month timetable as a goal yesterday. In an interview with Military News published this week Mr Obama insisted that a withdrawal could begin relatively soon after his inauguration.

But he added: “If, on the other hand you’ve got a deteriorating situation for some reason, then that’s going to have to be taken into account.”

Whitehall sources told The Times that Mr Brown would underline to Mr Obama that Britain’s policy in Iraq “does not include artificial timetables for withdrawal that do not take account of conditions on the ground”.

Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during his own visit to Iraq this week that improvements in security, including reduced levels of sectarian violence, political reconciliation and stronger Iraqi forces - are fragile and could still be reversed The White House has also insisted that it is not negotiating a “hard date” for a US withdrawal from Iraq, despite Baghdad’s call for such a timetable as a condition for agreement on US troops remaining beyond this year.

Foreign dilemmas

Iraq Can he stick with his promise to withdraw all combat troops within 16 months?

Afghanistan How does he get European allies to commit more troops - and allow them to fight?

Iran Does he risk undermining the West’s united front against Iranian enrichment by promising unconditional talks?

Climate change How will he work with Europe to get a global agreement at the Copenhagen summit next year that satisfies Congress and US industry?

Trade Will he bow to pressure from fellow Democrats and block new deals when the world is heading for recession?

Europe How does he repair transatlantic relations without getting too close to the cheese-eating surrender monkeys" that much of the US despises?

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