Zimbabwe prime minister to ask Obama for US help

WASHINGTON – Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai will seek help for his cash-strapped government when he meets President Barack Obama at the White House on Friday, but will likely be told more reforms are needed first.

The meeting will underscore the quandary Obama faces — how to support Tsvangirai’s efforts to rebuild Zimbabwe’s shattered economy without bolstering President Robert Mugabe. Western states accuse Mugabe of years of misrule and largely shun him.

Obama extended sanctions against Zimbabwe in March, targeting individuals close to Mugabe and some local companies, but he has so far declined to follow in the footsteps of the Bush administration and call for Mugabe to step down.

Tsvangirai, a former labor official and longtime opposition leader, is in Washington as part of a tour of Europe and the United States to rally support for the power-sharing government he formed with Mugabe in February after bitterly disputed elections that saw his supporters beaten and jailed.

But he is returning home mostly empty-handed after donors told him they wanted to see more economic, political and social reforms to convince them the unity government was not simply a cover to extend the nearly three-decade rule of Mugabe, 85, who has been in power since Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in 1980.

"I am very realistic about what we need to do and what our shortcomings are," Tsvangirai said in an interview with Reuters this week in which he acknowledged his government still had to earn the confidence of the international community.

Obama is expected to renew a U.S. pledge of humanitarian aid to feed the millions of Zimbabweans in need of food but will also express concern that not enough has been done by the new unity government to address human rights concerns and take steps toward holding free and fair elections.

"Some important progress has been made in Zimbabwe since the power-sharing agreement was signed last year and the prime minister’s party was brought into government, but there is still a long way to go," said Mike Hammer, spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council. 

"The United States seeks to support those working for full implementation of the agreement, and to find ways to ease the suffering of the Zimbabwean people without bolstering those forces still clinging to corruption and repression," he said.

‘DIFFICULT ROAD AHEAD’

The White House said in a statement that Obama and Tsvangirai would "discuss the difficult road ahead in Zimbabwe."

Zimbabwe’s public works minister said on Thursday the country needed more than $2 billion to kick-start job creation and ease an unemployment rate of about 90 percent.

The government has said it needs $10 billion to rebuild the economy, which it has forecast will grow by 2.8 percent in 2009. Analysts say foreign currency shortages could curb any economic recovery.

Tsvangirai used a speech to a Washington think tank this week to spotlight reforms implemented by the unity government, saying they had led to "real change."

They included stopping the printing of the Zimbabwean dollar to tackle record inflation, scrapping a requirement for media outlets to be licensed and withdrawing the riot police from the streets of the capital, Harare.

"The current changes that have taken place in the country are irreversible," he said in his interview with Reuters.

But the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Johnnie Carson, said on Monday that Washington remained to be convinced and that it had no plans for now to offer major aid or lift sanctions.