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U.S. President Barack Obama is embarking on his first foreign visit conveying a tone of courtship - hinting that he hopes progress in Afghanistan will convince Canada to keep troops there after 2011, but saying he won't ask Stephen Harper to commit this week.

And despite a lobbying and advertising campaign mounted by environmental groups pushing the new President to "say no to dirty oil" from Canada, Mr. Obama is avoiding singling out Alberta's oil sands as a polluting pariah - saying that, as with coal in the U.S., the goal must be to mitigate its impact, not stop using it.

The soft-sell tone - on trade, oil and Afghanistan - is part of the broader message that he is trying to get across on his first foreign trip as President, a baby-step quickie trip to his country's close neighbour and largest trading partner: that the U.S. is trying to rebuild its alliances.

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In an interview with CBC television Tuesday, the President said he won't press Prime Minister Harper for Canadian troops to stay past the 2011 deadline set for their withdrawal from Kandahar. But he also hinted that there's still time for progress in Afghanistan to change Canada's mind.

"I think, you know, we've got until 2011, according to the Canadian legislature, and I think it's important for the Canadian legislature and the people of Canada to get a sense that what they're doing is productive.

"…Obviously I'm going to be continuing to ask other countries to help think through, 'How do we approach this very difficult problem?' But I don't have a specific 'ask' in my pocket that I intend to bring out in our meetings."

The U.S. President has said that he will make Afghanistan a top foreign-policy priority, and is set to announce a major troop surge. He has appointed prominent diplomat Richard Holbrooke as his special envoy to Afghanistan and its neighbour, Pakistan.

Mr. Obama expressed thanks for Canada's efforts, and said problems in Afghanistan cannot be solved by military means alone, but require diplomacy and development efforts in a comprehensive strategy that he hopes will be "one that ultimately the people of Canada can support. …"

His half-day visit to Ottawa will be a brief dip of the toe outside the U.S. He arrives at 10:30 for two sessions with Mr. Harper lasting a total of two or three hours, a short news conference, and a 20-minute courtesy meeting with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff at the airport before he leaves at 3:40 p.m.

Aides say the gentle approach is part of the signal the President wants to send - that alliances matter. Denis McDonough, a National Security Council staffer, said Mr. Obama wants to the trip to underscore "that it's vitally important that America revitalize its alliances."

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Although he had mused during his election campaign about reopening NAFTA, he tried to be reassuring on trade - to avoid, according to Mr. McDonough, any recession-time signal that he wants less trade rather than more.

The President said Canadians should not be "too concerned" about Buy American provisions in his stimulus bill because the U.S. will live up to trade treaties, and made his NAFTA concerns sound like a matter of details.

When asked about Alberta's oil sands, Mr. Obama chose to soothe concerns in Ottawa, rather than respond to an environmental movement that supported his election.

Mr. Harper has proposed a joint Canada-U.S. climate regime, in part out of fear Canadian oil might face U.S. punitive regulation, but environmental groups have been running ads in U.S. newspapers urging Mr. Obama to "say no to dirty oil" when he visits Ottawa.

"What we know is that oil sands creates a big carbon footprint," Mr. Obama said - but he stressed that technology like carbon-capture-and-storage could mitigate the impact.

"I think that it is possible for us to create a set of clean energy mechanisms that allow us to use things not just like oil sands, but also coal. The United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal, but we have our own homegrown problems in terms of dealing with a cheap energy source that creates a big carbon footprint."

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Those comments will be received warmly by Mr. Harper's Conservatives, who have been trying to shed the oil sands' "dirty oil" label and insist its pollution is comparable to that from U.S. coal.

But environmentalists are skeptical about whether the carbon-capture technology is viable, especially in the oil sands, and using it to mitigate pollution will be a different proposition in the oil sands if developments there continue to expand rapidly.

"I'm sure the Canadian government is going to take this as the kind of language that they are looking for, but the devil is in the detail," said Susan Casey-Lefkowicz, a senior attorney at the Natural Resource Defence Council in Washington.

With reports from Shawn McCarthy and Brian Laghi in Ottawa

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