US President Barack Obama received the gold Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma in a lavish ceremony in the Norwegian capital on Thursday amid controversy over his role as a "war president" and widespread doubts about whether he deserves the "peace award".
A controversial choice comes just nine days after Obama ordered 30,000 more U.S. troops to years of Afghanistan invasion.
In awarding the prize to Obama, the Nobel panel cited "his call for a world free of nuclear weapons, for a more engaged U.S. role in combating global warming, for his support of the United Nations and multilateral diplomacy and for broadly capturing the attention of the world and giving its people hope."
So the choice of Obama was such a surprise, and derided so loudly by some critics as premature, that the Nobel committee took the unusual step of defending itself.
Obama acknowledged criticism of his Nobel Peace Prize.
"On a whole host of initiatives that I've put forward this year, some of which are beginning to bear fruit, the goal is not to win a popularity contest or to win an award — even one as esteemed as the Nobel Peace Prize," he said. The goal is to advance "American interests," he said.
"I have no doubt there are others who may be more deserving," Obama said at a joint press conference with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, adding that he had been surprised to be named as the prize winner in October.
Obama is the third sitting U.S. president, along with Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, to win the prize. Jimmy Carter was honoured two decades after he left office. Other prominent Nobel peace laureates include Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa.
Obama will be in Oslo for just over 24 hours to pick up the award.
Events related to the formal Nobel Peace Prize ceremony normally run over three days, but the president has shortened his visit and excluded the traditional lunch with the king and a Friday night concert in his honour.
There will also be no day-before press conference or lengthy CNN sit-down interview laureates usually grant -- enabling him to avoid potentially embarrassing questions.
Obama will however watch the traditional torchlight procession on Thursday evening from the balcony of the Grand Hotel, where bullet-proof glass has been installed.
The other Nobel laureates in the fields of medicine, physics, chemistry, economics and literature will meanwhile receive their awards at a gala ceremony in Stockholm on Thursday.
The Nobel honor comes with a $1.4 million prize. The White House says Obama will give that to charities but has not yet decided which ones.
"Afghans paying price"
Peace activists are staging a protest to coincide with the Nobel ceremonies.
The president's motorcade arrived at Oslo's high-rise government complex to anti-war protesters gathered behind wire fences nearby. Dressed in black hoods and waving banners, the demonstrators banged drums and chanted anti-war slogans. "The Afghan people are paying the price," some shouted.
Greenpeace and anti-war activists planned larger demonstrations later that were expected to draw several thousand people. Protesters have plastered posters around the city, featuring an Obama campaign poster altered with skepticism to say, "Change?"
Most people were stunned, including some in the White House.
Some polls show that while many Americans are proud Obama is receiving the award, but a majority feel it is undeserved. Americans remain anxious about the economy, nudging Obama's approval ratings down to 50 percent or below and potentially hurting his Democratic Party in congressional elections next year.
Army presence in region "indefinitely"
There has been debate in Washington over Obama's commitment to the July 2011 withdrawal date after top administration officials testifying before the U.S. Congress suggested it was flexible.
Obama, in Oslo to receive the prize, shied away from repeating the word "withdraw" and said July 2011 would signal a shift in the U.S. invasion in Afghanistan, when "we are beginning to transfer responsibility to the Afghan people."
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday there would be no "precipitous drawdown" of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Obama told Americans in a televised speech last week that U.S. troops would begin withdrawing from Afghanistan on July 2011 as they transferred "control" to newly trained Afghan security forces.
"I have been unambiguous about this, so there should not be a debate. Starting in July 2011 we will begin that transition, that transfer of responsibility," Obama said.
He said the pace of the transfer of authority and the slope of the drawdown of troops would depend on "conditions".
"It is very important to understand we are not going to see some sharp cliff, some precipitous drawdown," Obama said at a news conference.
He also made clear that the U.S. military could have a presence in the region "indefinitely".
It is also important to understand that several years after U.S. combat troops have been drastically reduced in the region ... the Afghan government is still going "to need support" for those security forces, he said.
"We are still going to have an interest in partnering with Afghans and Pakistanis and others in dealing with the remnants of terrorist activity," he said.