Obama, Cameron navigate Lockerbie, BP rows

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British Prime Minister David Cameron Tuesday ruled out an inquiry into the release of the Lockerbie bomber, delicately navigating US fury over the move as he met President Barack Obama.

Cameron however did order his top civil servant to review documents on the release of terminally ill Libyan Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi, who was freed last year by Scotland on compassionate grounds, but is still alive.

"I don't need an inquiry to tell me what was a bad decision," Cameron said, but pledged to ask Britain's Cabinet Secretary to review whether more information about the release needs to be published.

Obama and his visitor carefully picked through raw political sensitivities surrounding the release of Megrahi, and over British-based BP's pariah role in the United States following the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

And both leaders insisted that war strategy in Afghanistan was correct, and said plans to hand over the country largely to Afghan forces by 2014, endorsed by an international Kabul conference on Tuesday, were realistic.

In their first White House meeting, they also both pledged fealty to the US-British "special relationship" as Obama attempted to stamp out suggestions he did not value the long alliance in the same way as his predecessors.

The two men held three hours of talks in the Oval Office, shared a lunch of Wild Striped Bass, and the president gave his guest a tour of the White House living quarter -- Cameron remarked on the Obama daughters' tidy bedrooms.

Cameron forcibly condemned the decision by Scotland's devolved government to free Megrahi, who was the only person convicted in the bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie in 1988 that killed 270 people, mostly Americans.

"I said this a year ago... it was a bad decision, it shouldn't have been made," said Cameron who was in opposition last year, and had no control over the decision.

"He showed his victims no compassion. They were not allowed to die in their beds at home, surrounded by their families; so, in my view, neither should that callous killer have been given that luxury."

In return, Obama stopped short of calling for an official government inquiry into the affair, stating his own personal anger at the Megrahi release, and placing confidence in Cameron over the fallout.

"We've got a British prime minister who shares our anger over the decision," Obama said.

"So I'm fully supportive of Prime Minister Cameron's efforts to gain a better understanding of it, to clarify it."

In a last-minute U-turn, Downing Street announced Cameron would see four US senators furious about the Scottish government's release of Megrahi, who are demanding action by the London government.

The senators are demanding transparency, having seized on reports -- denied by BP and the British government -- that the firm pushed for Megrahi's release to safeguard a lucrative oil exploration deal with Libya.

Cameron reiterated during his press conference with Obama that he believed BP had nothing to do with the release.

The British leader, carefully noting US anger over BP's role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, said he fully agreed with Obama that BP needed to seal the ruptured well, clean up the spill and compensate victims.

But with an eye on the British-based firm's role as a provider of thousands of jobs in the US and British economies, Cameron also warned that bankrupting BP would be counterproductive.

"So it's in the interest of both our countries, as we agreed, that it remains a strong and stable company for the future."

Obama and Cameron also paid mutual tribute to US and British soldiers killed in the Afghan war, and insisted their plan was working.

"We have the right strategy. We're going to break the Taliban's momentum. We're going to build Afghan capacity, so Afghans can take responsibility for their future."

Both the US and British governments, under rising political pressure from an increasingly unpopular war, have insisted that plans to withdraw Western combat troops from Afghanistan are realistic.

Obama, who mandated a surge of US forces last year, has said he wants to start bringing home at least some troops in July 2011. Cameron wants British combat troops home within five years.

But critics have expressed doubts that the newly trained Afghan army will be in any shape to keep the peace by 2014.

"I think it is realistic," Cameron insisted on NPR Tuesday. "Remember, 2014 is four years away, so there's quite a lot of time to train up that Afghan army, and that, to me, is the most important thing.

"In the end, we're not in Afghanistan to create the perfect democracy or the perfect, society," he said, adding that the mission was to stop the return of terrorist training camps to the country.

© 2010 AFP

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