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Obama Fever Builds Up

DW staff (sms/win)July 24, 2008

Berlin is gripped by Obamania as the US presidential candidate met with Chancellor Merkel in the German capital on Thursday while thousands waited for him to speak in the heart of the city.

Obama waves to a crowd in Berlin
Obama with Merkel in the German chancellery in BerlinImage: AP

At the start of a tour aimed at burnishing his foreign policy credentials, Barack Obama met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Thursday, July 24 for talks on key international issues.

Merkel's spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said the two touched on Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East peace process as well as climate protection and the state of the global economy in an hour-long conversation.

The Illinois senator also saw Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and was to meet with Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit before making a keenly awaited speech in central Berlin in front of a crowd expected to number tens of thousands.

Obama in Berlin
There were star-struck crowds everywhere Obama wentImage: AP

A small crowd of star-struck onlookers gathered outside the chancellor's office in central Berlin where Obama and Merkel held their talks and the luxury hotel where he is staying during his day-long visit.

Close to the historic Brandenburg Gate, Berliners and tourists, many decked out in Obama T-shirts, turned out in their hundreds hours before Obama's scheduled speech at the historic Victory Column.

On a sunny day in the German capital, fast food stands, giant screens and pop concerts along the main avenue through the Tiergarten Strasse des 17 Juni created an atmosphere akin to a big party before the keenly awaited speech at 7 pm local time.

Obama plays down hype

Obama, hugely popular in Germany, sought to play down the massive expectations for his speech in Berlin Thursday, saying he was not trying to make a historic address like JFK and Ronald Reagan.

"They were presidents, I am a citizen," he told reporters travelling with him. "There is no doubt that part of what I want to communicate on both sides of the Atlantic is the enormous potential of us restoring a sense of coming together."

The 46-year-old presumptive Democratic candidate said he wanted the United States and Europe to rediscover their common ground.

"Obviously Berlin is representative of the extraordinary success of the post World War II effort to bring the continent together and to bring the West together, and later to bring the East and the West together," he said. "So I think it is a natural place to talk."

Obama's 45-minute address on trans-Atlantic relations is expected to pull in tens of thousands.

"Hopefully [the speech] will be viewed as a substantive articulation of the relationship I'd like to see between the United States and Europe," Obama told reporters in Israel shortly before leaving for Germany. "I'm hoping to communicate across the Atlantic the value of that relationship and how we need to build on it."

Preparations for Obama's speech were marred after a 40-year man driving a car breached the cordoned off zone where the US presidential candidate is to speak and sprayed red paint around the area.

Police surround a car with red paint on the street
Police cordoned off the car after the paint attackImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The man from the southern German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg is now in police custody, pending an investigation.

Earlier, a suspicious package at the swanky Adlon Hotel, which is close to both the US Embassy and Berlin's historic Brandenburg Gate, triggered a security scare. The hotel's lobby was cleared briefly before the package was examined by explosives experts and declared that it did not represent any threat.

Election campaigning

While Berlin was in Obama fever ahead of the visit, political commentators stressed that the main aim of the visit was to boost the senator's fortunes in the US presidential race.

A purple banner for Obama's speech in Berlin
Obama's advance team was worried anti-American signs could sour US opinion of the speechImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

In his speech, Obama was expected to seek to revive trans-Atlantic relations that suffered considerable damage under President George W. Bush.

Europeans are looking to the Illinois senator to restore a transatlantic relationship that has been strained, in particular, by President Bush's invasion of Iraq.

European leaders strongly support Obama's foreign policy goals including closing the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for terror suspects, fighting nuclear proliferation and tackling climate change with an EU-style emissions cap-and-trade plan.

Obama's calls for talking directly to Iran over its nuclear program and renewing US engagement in the Middle East peace process have also received a warm welcome in European capitals.

Commentators were watching closely to discern calls for greater European contributions in Afghanistan and to hear the senator's views on pressing Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment program.

Obama is overwhelmingly more popular in Europe than his Republican adversary, John McCain. A recent poll put his German support at 76 percent.

Following his round of engagements in Berlin, Obama is to visit Friday the US Ramstein Air Force base and the US military hospital in Landstuhl, which are both in the western part of Germany.

The presumed US Democrat presidential candidate will then travel on to France. Before arriving in Germany, Obama visited Israel, the Palestinian territories, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq and Jordan.

No German troop changes in Afghanistan

Asked about Obama's recent comments that he would press European NATO partners for more troops for Afghanistan, Merkel said Wednesday that Germany had no plans to go beyond pledges made last month for the NATO-led ISAF mission.

A soldier's shoulder with badges of the German flag and an ISAF identifier
Germany has refused to increase troop commitments in AfghanistanImage: AP

"I can give Barack Obama the good news that we will be boosting the mandate to include 1,000 more troops for the ISAF mission," she told reporters. "We also just took over the command of the quick reaction force (in northern Afghanistan).

"Thus I will make clear that we are not shirking our responsibilities for engagement but I will also make the limits very clear, just as I have done with the current president," Merkel added.

Germany has faced growing pressure to increase the number of troops it has deployed in Afghanistan and to move troops from the relatively calm North of the country to the South where US-led forces are battling tenacious Taliban insurgents.

In response to the calls from the United States and other NATO members, Berlin announced plans in June to boost its contingent in northern Afghanistan later this year by up to 1,000 soldiers to a maximum of 4,500 troops.

The mission, however, is extremely unpopular among Germans and any move to expand the deployment further would likely provoke a voter backlash ahead of general elections slated for 2009.

US policy continuity

Bush and Merkel
Ties to the US improved slightly after Merkel took over in the chancelleryImage: AP

Merkel, who has met McCain on several occasions, said she was keen to sit down with his challenger. She said she was impressed by the grassroots enthusiasm Obama managed to spark during his "bold" and extended Democratic primary campaign.

"From the way he triumphed in the primaries in America, I would say he is a man of many strengths -- physical, mental and political," she said.

Merkel said she was particularly interested in discussing trans-Atlantic political and economic ties with Obama, NATO, climate change and the Doha trade round.

But she said she expected broad continuity in the US stance toward Europe regardless of whether Obama or McCain won in November.

"In general the impact of differences on domestic policy is larger than those on foreign policy," she said. "We will continue to defend our interests and, in specific cases, find compromises."