WASHINGTON — Zimbabwe's reform-minded Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai on Monday urged the United States to recognize that Zimbawe has made progress toward democracy as he appeared to suggest it ease sanctions.
But there was no sign US President Barack Obama's administration would ease sanctions targeted at President Robert Mugabe and his loyalists, the people with whom Tsvangirai has shared power uneasily for more than a year.
The United States -- along with the European Union -- maintains a travel ban and asset freeze on Mugabe, his wife and inner circle in protest at controversial elections and alleged human rights abuses by his government.
In an interview with AFP and another journalist, Tsvangirai appeared to make the case for at least an easing of US sanctions when he visited Washington for talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
He came "to update her on the latest situation in the country in terms of where the bottlenecks are, where progress has been made, and what the United States should do," the premier said.
"There should be a recognition (by Washington) that there is progress, but (perception of) that progress may not be sufficient to convince the American government," Tsvangirai said, referring to efforts to lift the sanctions.
He said he told her: "It's for you (the United States) to judge us on the basis of what has been done on the ground, not the perception of Mugabe. Mugabe is the past. We're talking about the future of the country..."
The reality, he said, is that Mugabe agreed last month to set up commissions to open newspapers, establish a new independent electoral commission, draft a new constitution and create a national healing program.
"Surely that is sufficient confirmation of (Mugabe's) commitment to reform," he said.
He said that under article four of the global political agreement, which led to the power-sharing arrangement in February last year, the sanctions should be lifted when certain political conditions are met.
But he stopped short of calling for such a move.
"I can't decide that (a lifting). That is a sovereign right of the American government," Tsvangirai said.
The administration appeared circumspect about the premier's visit.
"The secretary and prime minister discussed how we can best assist the people of Zimbabwe and foster greater democratic reform and political opening in Zimbabwe," Clinton's spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters.
A State Department official told AFP on the condition of anonymity that Tsvangirai has been campaigning for an easing of sanctions even though basic parts of the power-sharing agreement "have not been fulfilled" by Mugabe.
Mugabe has argued for easing sanctions in exchange for simply talking about rather than actually making Tsvangirai's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) "a full-fledged partner" in the government, the official said.
"Unfortunately, Tsvangirai and some members of the MDC seem to buy that argument and are willing to go out and engage in this campaign to get the sanctions eased," the official said.
"We (the United States) cannot do that," he concluded.
Tsvangirai earlier welcomed as "very positive" a Zimbabwean judge's acquittal of Roy Bennett, a top aide, in an alleged plot to topple Mugabe, ending a trial that had threatened the fragile unity government.
Bennett, a white farmer, was arrested last year shortly before he was due to be sworn in as deputy agriculture minister.
But the premier acknowledged other steps had to be taken to shore up the fragile unity government.
In Harare last week, for example, Tsvangirai called for a speedy resolution of major disagreements over key appointments as well as security sector reform.
Clinton welcomed Tsvangirai's return to Washington, after a trip in June here last year in which Obama pledged 73 million dollars in aid to Zimbawe to develop basic services like water and sanitation -- on top of humanitarian aid.
"We continue to support the efforts for reform and positive changes inside Zimbabwe. And of course the prime minister has played a major role in attempting to move his country on the right path," Clinton said.