- The Washington Times - Monday, July 19, 2010

The White House on Monday said the war in Afghanistan is “first and foremost” on the agenda for Prime Minister David Cameron’s first Washington visit with President Obama, but the new British leader will be walking a political tightrope over the release of the Lockerbie bomber amid questions from Congress about whether BP had a role in the decision.

The meeting Tuesday comes as operations in Afghanistan are at a pivotal point. A spring offensive in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah produced mixed results, and a campaign in Kandahar has been delayed till the fall.

Not all of Mr. Obama’s 30,000 additional troops have been deployed, but public opinion on the war is souring even as newly installed Gen. David H. Petraeus has taken the helm.

The two leaders - who met in Canada at the Group of Eight summit last month - are sure to discuss a timetable for a troop withdrawal from the war-ravaged nation. Mr. Obama has said U.S. troops will begin pulling out next summer; Mr. Cameron’s government has said it would like to see most of Britain’s forces leave by 2014.

While the global economy and the Middle East will also occupy the two leaders, “I would say Afghanistan is probably first and foremost,” spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Monday.

Next to the U.S., which as of July had supplied about 78,000 of the total 120,000 troops in Afghanistan, Britain is the largest source of manpower, providing 9,500 troops to the NATO-led international effort. Under Mr. Cameron’s Labor Party predecessor, Tony Blair, Britain also was the second-largest contributor to the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq.

But a spate of thorny topics certainly will be on the table, beginning with the decision by Scottish authorities last year to release Libyan terrorist Abdel Baset al-Megrahi from jail out of “compassion” after he was diagnosed with cancer while serving time in for bombing a Pan Am flight in 1988, killing 270 people - mostly Americans.

Mr. Cameron this week reiterated his previous condemnations of the decision, telling the BBC it was “completely and utterly wrong.”

However, some U.S. lawmakers are demanding more than criticism and have called for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to investigate the circumstances surrounding the decision. In particular, four senators have asked whether oil giant BP pushed the government to release al-Megrahi in hopes of securing access to Libyan oil fields.

“The families of the victims have the right to know if his release was part of an oil deal,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Monday. “The circumstantial evidence out there is too much to ignore; it’s time the Department of Justice took a hard look at these allegations and get to the bottom of it.”

Mr. Schumer and three other Democratic senators from New York and New Jersey requested a meeting with Mr. Cameron to discuss the subject, though a Cameron spokesman has said his schedule is full. Britain has denied any connection between the bomber’s release and BP’s admitted efforts to persuade the government to sign a prisoner-transfer agreement with Libya.

BP could provide a source of tension in the Oval Office Tuesday on another front. The embattled firm, which is headquartered in London, is responsible for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history and continues to grapple with the extensive damage and economic fallout of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Some in Britain have bristled at Washington’s aggressive rhetoric toward BP in the wake of the oil spill, noting that many ordinary Britons have pensions tied to the value of the stock price of the energy giant, a pillar of the British commercial establishment.

Mr. Cameron has been measured in his public comments on the situation, prompting some critics to accuse him of not doing enough to stand up for the company. He has insisted repeatedly that BP must remain financially stable even as it works through the damages caused by its spill.

The two men also will turn their attention toward the global economy as European nations continue a debate over how to balance efforts aimed at stimulating the economy with rising public deficits. Mr. Cameron’s government has called for drastic spending cuts, while the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress have argued that government belt-tightening right now could hamper financial recovery.

Previous U.S. presidents have enjoyed close relationships with their British counterparts, with Mr. Blair in particular having hit it off with both former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Many observers said Mr. Obama’s relationship with Mr. Cameron’s predecessor, Gordon Brown, appeared strained - a conclusion that was bolstered last year when Mr. Obama gave the Labor Party leader a collection of American DVDs that weren’t compatible with a European DVD player.

Mr. Cameron’s visit on Tuesday will include a meeting in the Oval Office, a working lunch and a joint press conference.



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