Glamour backs diplomacy on Obama state visit

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Queen Elizabeth II on Tuesday deployed British royalty's grandest pomp for US President Barack Obama, on a state visit meant to prove a "special relationship" remains "essential" in a world of shifting power.

Obama and his wife Michelle enjoyed a regal welcome from the queen, who has met every US president but one since the 1950s, as a 41-gun salute boomed out over London and Buckingham Palace choreographed the splendour of a state dinner.

Prince William and his tanned bride Catherine meanwhile added a twist of glamour, meeting the US first couple just after returning from the Seychelles honeymoon that capped their fairlytale wedding last month.

Obama's visit, the second stop on a European tour, comes as Britain seeks to prove its staying power despite fading military might and Washington looks to retool its decades-old alliance with Europe as a catalyst for global action.

The meat of the visit, discussions over the uncertain state of NATO's operation in Libya and Obama's efforts to win backing for his bid to coax Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab states towards democracy were set for Wednesday.

But his first day in London was devoted to ceremony -- with a palace welcome, a pilgrimage to the tomb of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey and the swapping of elaborate gifts with the royals.

The Obamas started their day with the royal newlyweds at Buckingham Palace, and Catherine, the new Duchess of Cambridge, looked poised and glamorous in a picture released afterwards, showing her chatting with Michelle Obama.

After a state dinner on Tuesday night, the Obamas were to retire to the palace's sumptuous Belgian suite, last used by William and the former Kate Middleton on their wedding night.

There were also fresh signs of real warmth between the Obamas and the royals, who appeared to bond -- with the queen and First Lady unusually putting their arms around one another -- in their first meeting two years ago.

"There is a genuine, genuine -- and I really mean this -- a genuine warmth between the two families," a palace spokesman said.

White House deputy spokesman Ben Rhodes painted the queen, who has been on the throne for nearly 60 years, as an emblem of continuity for US-Britain ties, from her young adulthood in World War II, through the Cold War, to the present day.

"The president was very honoured to be recieved by the queen today," Rhodes said.

"She is a historic figure who in many ways embodies the depth of the ties between our nations."

Cameron and Obama limbered up for their talks and a press conference on Wednesday with a jointly penned opinion article in the Times newspaper.

They vowed to support those risking their lives for reform in the Arab world.

"We will not stand by as their aspirations get crushed in a hail of bombs, bullets and mortar fire. We are reluctant to use force, but when our interests and values come together, we know we have a responsibility to act," they wrote.

"We will stand with those who want to bring light into dark, support those who seek freedom in place of repression, aid those laying the building blocks of democracy," they said in an article in the Times newspaper.

In a riff on the so-called "special relationship" between the United States and Britain, Obama and Cameron also heralded a new "essential relationship" between the countries.

Diplomatic and military maneuvering is heating up over Libya ahead of the G8 summit in France, Obama's next stop on a European tour which began with a journey to his ancestral roots in Ireland and also takes in Poland.

But the 24-hour demands that follow a US president everywhere shadowed the London pomp, as Obama took time out to say he was "heartbroken" at the toll of vicious tornados which ripped across the US Midwest, killing 116 people.

Mindful that no US leader can afford to hobnob with royals abroad while a tragedy unfolds at home, Obama said he would visit the Missouri tornado disaster zone on Sunday, hours after returning from Europe.

On Tuesday, after the formal welcome and lunch, the queen showed the Obamas US-related items from the royal family's archives.

In the traditional exchange of gifts, the royals gave the Obamas a gift of letters to and from US presidents to Queen Victoria in the 19th century.

In return, the president gave the queen and her husband a leather-bound album of memorabilia of a visit made by her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, to the United States in 1939, and equestrian-related items reflecting the royals' love of horses.

In a slice of history, at Westminster Abbey, America's first black president passed beneath a statue of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, installed above the ancient abbey's Great West Door in 1998.

On Wednesday, the president is granted the rare honour of addressing both houses of the British parliament.

© 2011 AFP

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