- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

ANKARA, TURKEY (AP) - President Barack Obama is reaching out to Turkey to help him wind down the Iraq war and bring stability to the Middle East. He is also counting on the only Muslim member of NATO to remain a steadfast ally in the Afghanistan conflict.

Obama’s visit is being closely watched by an Islamic world that harbored deep distrust of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Obama was spending two days in Turkey as he wraps up an event-packed, eight-day international trip that also saw stops in Britain, France, Germany and the Czech Republic.

He arrived in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, late Sunday. On Monday, he was to lay a wreath at the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, meet with Turkish leaders and speak to parliament. He will then go on to Istanbul for events on Tuesday.

In his inaugural address in January, Obama pledged to reach out to the Muslim world.

At a luncheon Sunday for leaders of the European Union’s 27 nations in Prague, he said the West should seek greater cooperation and closer ties with Islamic nations. He suggested one way was by allowing Turkey to join the European Union _ a contentious subject for some European countries. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said after Obama’s remarks that the decision was the EU’s to make, not Washington’s.

Americans remain unsure of what to make of Islam even as most people in the U.S. think Obama should seek better relations with the Muslim world, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. About 55 percent of Americans say they lack a good, basic understanding of the religion, the poll found, and 48 percent have an unfavorable view of it.

Obama’s trip to Turkey, his final scheduled country visit, ties together themes of earlier stops. He attended the Group of 20 economic summit in London, celebrated NATO’s 60th anniversary in Strasbourg, France, and on Saturday visited the Czech Republic, which included a summit of European Union leaders in Prague.

Turkey is a member of both the G-20 and NATO and is trying to get into the EU with the help of the U.S.

Turkey has the largest army in NATO after the United States.

“Obama starts with a great advantage because his name is not George Bush,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

While Bush was extremely unpopular in Turkey and the Islamic world, “there’s a sense of goodwill toward the U.S. _ and particularly toward President Obama. And the entire Islamic world will be watching” Monday’s speech to the Turkish Grand National Assembly, Aliriza said.

In talks with Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, and prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Obama will try to sell his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He should find welcoming ears, given the new U.S. focus on melding troop increases with civilian efforts to better the lives of people in both countries.

Turkey opposed the war in Iraq in 2003 and U.S. forces were not allowed to go through Turkey to attack Iraq. Now, however, since Obama is withdrawing troops, Turkey has become more cooperative. It is going to be a key country after the U.S. withdrawal in maintaining stability, although it has long had problems with Kurdish militants in north Iraq.

Turkey maintains a small military force in Afghanistan, part of the NATO contingent working with U.S. troops to beat back the resurgent Taliban and deny al-Qaida a safe haven along the largely lawless territory that straddles Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. Turkey’s participation carries enormous symbolic importance because it is the only Muslim country with a presence in the fight against Islamic extremism.

Turkey has diplomatic leverage with both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

One of the most contentious issues for Obama may be the Armenian genocide resolution before Congress. Obama supported the resolution during the 2008 presidential campaign, and Turks are worried that he will support it as president, which would be a break from both his two immediate predecessors, Bill Clinton and Bush, who opposed it

That could send a chilly blast through otherwise warming U.S.-Turkish relations.

____

Associated Press writer Steven R. Hurst in Washington contributed to this report.


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