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White House preps for Merkel's Tuesday visit

Nearly 17 years after the last dinner for a leader from Germany, the White House was readying an elaborate, red-carpet welcome Tuesday for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Her visit will literally begin with a bang — a 19-gun salute on the White House South Lawn to herald the arrival of someone President Barack Obama says is a "trusted global partner." It will end with the most elegant evening the U.S. puts on for a foreign leader, a black-tie dinner.

It's all being done to highlight Germany's growing importance in world affairs — and to the U.S.

Merkel is the first European leader to receive such treatment from Obama and White House officials say the visit was arranged to highlight the close working relationship that she and Obama have developed.

"Germany is an important partner of ours globally, not just in Europe, and the president very much looks forward to meeting with the chancellor again," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Obama is devoting an unusual degree of personal attention to Merkel's visit. Monday evening, the two leaders met for a quiet dinner in the city's historic Georgetown neighborhood, at an elegant restaurant modeled on a country inn.

Merkel's visit is deemed "official" because she's the head of Germany's government, not its head of state — in which case it would then be a "state" visit. But both are alike in style and substance. The only difference is in the number of gun salutes: a head of state gets 21.

Regardless of what the visit is called, Merkel is in rarified company. Visits like these, with the accompanying pomp and pageantry, are an honor the U.S. doles out sparingly to close friends and allies. Obama so far has extended similar courtesies only to leaders of India, Mexico and China.

Heather Conley, a European scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Germany is playing a growing and important role in international affairs, from the global economy and Europe's debt crisis to the Mideast peace process and the war in Afghanistan. Germany has backed the U.S. by sending thousands of troops to Afghanistan, but has avoided involvement in Libya.

"They're a key player, and I think this is an important gesture," Conley said.

Merkel's visit is a bit ill-timed, coming during a deadly European outbreak of E. coli that has hit Germany the hardest and has stumped officials trying to pinpoint the source. At least 22 people have died and more than 2,300 across Europe have become ill.

Obama and Merkel got off to a rocky start, but the pair of pragmatists massaged that into what both sides say is a good relationship.

When Obama was running for president in 2008, Merkel refused to let him speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, a Cold War symbol famously used as a backdrop by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. He returned the snub a year later by turning down her invitation to help mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Obama has visited Germany twice while in office, but has never made a formal visit to Berlin. Germany was not part of his recent four-country European tour, which local media suggested Merkel took as a snub. Her aides insist that was not the case.

Merkel has been to the Oval Office for meetings with Obama and the two meet often on the sidelines of international conferences. They also speak regularly by phone.

The visit also gives Obama the chance to present Merkel the Presidential Medal of Freedom he awarded her. At a ceremony this year, Obama spoke about her youth in communist East Germany and her dreams of freedom that weren't realized until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Obama called her a "trusted global partner and a friend" and said her story was an inspiration to people around the world.

Merkel, 56, is the first woman and first East German to become chancellor of a unified Germany.

Her popularity has dipped at home due to political infighting and her support for bailing out Greece financially, but images of Obama draping the blue ribbon holding the star-shaped medal around her neck, along with the elaborate nature of her White House welcome, could help improve her image with the German public.

While the black-tie dinner has been in the works for months, the White House keeps a tight lid on all aspects of the evening — from the menu and d├ęcor to first lady Michelle Obama's gown — until a few hours before guests start arriving. In this age of raging social media, the White House also frowns on guests tweeting excitedly about the dinner beforehand, as has happened in the past.

One of the few known details is that guests are likely to dine on fresh lettuce and other produce from Mrs. Obama's garden.

It will be the first dinner under new White House social secretary Jeremy Bernard. Entertainment will be provided in the White House Rose Garden, and workers were laying down carpet on the lawn Monday evening in preparation.

The last White House dinner for a German leader was held for Chancellor Helmut Kohl in February 1995.

When Merkel took office in 2005, she inherited chilly relations with the administration of George W. Bush, who had been irked by her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder's strident criticism of the U.S.-led Iraq invasion.

But Merkel worked hard to smooth things over with Bush. She ended up becoming one of the few world leaders to be invited to visit with him at what became known as the Western White House, his Texas ranch, in 2007.

___

Associated Press writers Melissa Eddy and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

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