- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

ISTANBUL (AP) - One of President Barack Obama’s first stops on his visit to Turkey will be the imposing mausoleum of the national founder and independence war hero whose personality cult dominates the nation seven decades after his death.

It is a crime in Turkey to insult the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and a visit to his tomb is a must for virtually all foreign leaders. Ataturk, a former army officer, forged a staunchly secular system in the chaotic wake of the Ottoman Empire, and the Islamic-oriented government in charge today has refrained from directly challenging his legacy.

If tradition holds in Ankara, the American president will lay a wreath Monday at the site of soaring stone columns, red, white and green marble, a gold mosaic ceiling and a huge sarcophagus. The tribute is vital to the alliance between Turkey and the United States, which seeks help in its Iraq pullout and NATO’s troubled Afghan campaign.

Obama’s two-day trip is as symbolic of unity as it is strategic, following talks and handshakes with heads of Group of 20 nations, NATO and the European Union. His path across Europe leads to a Muslim people with secular ideals, a stable nation in an unstable region, and a city, Istanbul, that straddles a strait between the Asian and European continents.

“The atmospherics of the visit are as important as the substance,” said Hugh Pope, Turkey project director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research center.

Obama, who arrives late Sunday, is admired in Turkey. One Kurdish village sacrificed 44 sheep when he was elected, and a major bank used his image in a successful ad campaign on billboards and television in recent weeks. Still, many Turks remain suspicious about U.S. intentions.

“Obama, don’t come! We don’t want you!” protesters shouted Saturday in Ankara, the Turkish capital. Several thousand people called for the disbandment of NATO, whose leaders, including Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were meeting in Strasbourg, France. Protesters held a similar rally in Istanbul.

On Monday afternoon, Obama’s motorcade will take him to Ankara’s Grand National Assembly, a complex with a manicured garden designed by an Austrian architect in 1938, the year of Ataturk’s death.

In 2003, Turkey’s lawmakers voted not to let President George W. Bush use Turkish soil to open an invasion front against Saddam Hussein, fraying the alliance.

A speech to parliament by Obama will restore good will, and reinforce the Western view that Turkey can serve as an example that Islam and democracy can flourish together, despite internal divisions and concerns about reform.

More broadly, the presidential trip will lift Turkey’s growing profile as a regional mediator, capable of reaching out to the Middle East and Central Asia as easily as it talks to the West about energy, security and the economy.

“The new U.S. administration wants to correct its perception in the Islamic world, and Obama is starting with the easiest one, Turkey,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Institute in Ankara. “But whatever the United States says now, it will take time to work.”

Late Monday, Obama leaves Ankara for Istanbul, a capital of past empires, where he will attend a reception of the Alliance of Civilizations, a forum sponsored by Turkey and Spain to promote understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.

In keeping with that notion, Tuesday’s program includes visits to the domed Haghia Sofia, which once was a Byzantine church, and the fabled Blue Mosque in tribute to great faiths whose interlocking history has known peace and bloodshed in Istanbul.

Any tension over hard issues such as Turkey’s denial of an Armenian genocide in the Ottoman era is likely to stay private during Obama’s journey, and some activists question how hard U.S. officials will push for more democratic reform.

Emma Sinclair-Webb of New York-based Human Rights Watch said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to Turkey in early March, mostly reflected on Turkish progress between 2003 and 2005, but not the slow pace of change since then.

Sinclair-Webb said numerous laws restrict free speech and many people, especially Kurds in southeastern Turkey who seek more rights, spend long periods in pre-trial detention. “This all goes unseen,” she said.

Unlike Bush and President Bill Clinton in the past, Obama will not visit Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians. Turkey harbors historical mistrust toward the patriarchate, whose officials have appealed for more religious freedom from their compound on the Golden Horn inlet in Istanbul.


AP writer Selcan Hacaoglu contributed to this report from Ankara.

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