Obama meets Old Europe against WWII backdrop

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On Friday he will arrive in the reborn German city of Dresden, razed by Allied bombers in the war, to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Paris -- President Barack Obama is this week to meet the leaders of what the previous US administration dismissed as "Old Europe" to discuss very modern crises against the backdrop of key World War II sites.

On Friday he will arrive in the reborn German city of Dresden, razed by Allied bombers in the war, to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel for talks on Iran, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the global economic crisis.

While in Germany he will also see Buchenwald to pay tribute to thousands of victims of its Nazi death camp and to his own ancestor, Charlie Payne, who took part in the liberation of the camp as a US infantry soldier.

Then, on Saturday, the 65th anniversary of the D-Day Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy, the US leader will meet his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy and attend a ceremony at a cliff-top US war cemetery.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Prince Charles and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, will also attend the solemn commemoration at the Colleville-sur-Mer, which overlooks the US landing zone dubbed Omaha Beach.

Almost 10,000 US soldiers were buried at Colleville after falling during Operation Overlord in June 1944, the largest amphibious operation in history.

Omaha Beach, dominated by German guns on Pointe du Hoc, saw one of the bloodiest landings, and the cemetery -- signed over by France to the United States in perpetuity -- has become a place of pilgrimage for US presidents.

Today US, British, French, German, Canadian and other troops are fighting side-by-side under NATO command in Afghanistan against a resurgent Taliban, and Obama is keen to bind the allies into his new strategy.

Under the new president, the US force in Afghanistan has almost doubled, while France and Britain have only slightly edged up their participation and Germany has kept its small contingent away from the heaviest combat.

After his first presidential visit to Europe, in April to the NATO summit in Strasbourg, Obama knows Europe remains reluctant to match the US "troop surge", which has allowed US forces to work closely with Afghans.

"In the meantime, we need military support for the elections, for basic security in many of these villages. We have been there in the villages, a lot of troops. We expect all our NATO partners to do that," he said Tuesday.

"But that is not all the contribution we need to make. We also need agricultural specialists, we need gendarmes to train the police, and we need people who understand water systems and electrical systems," Obama added.

Other weighty issues under discussion will include Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, where European capitals have joined Washington in pushing for tougher sanctions against the Islamic republic.

France and Germany famously fell out with Obama's predecessor George W. Bush over his war to destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction -- which turned out not to exist -- but Europe has been much tougher with Iran.

Before setting off on his tour, Obama gave his first interviews to European media, telling the viewers of France's Canal+ an I-Tele networks: "I have a wonderful relationship with President Sarkozy."

He praised the French leader's "willingness to stand very firm in the need to deal with Afghanistan and his encouragement of tough direct diplomacy with Iran. These are areas where he has shown excellent leadership."

Following the hard talking and the sombre ceremonials at key sites from the Holocaust and D-Day, the US First Family will get some time off in France, a country Obama knows from his travels as a young student.

The president will have a private dinner in Paris on Saturday night with his wife Michelle and daughters, after which he will head home while the family enjoys a couple of days sightseeing and shopping.

Philippe Rater/AFP/Expatica

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