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Rice to Discuss Iran, Iraq with Turkey's Leaders

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be arriving in Turkey Tuesday on a day-long working visit to discuss developments in Iran, Iraq and other issues of common interest.

The secretary is set to come to Ankara from the Greek capital Athens, where she is

expected to hold talks early Tuesday on the first leg of a tour of three Balkan countries that will also take her to Bulgaria.

In Turkey, Rice will be meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as well as with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

Turkey is the NATO military alliance's sole predominantly Muslim member and has cooperated closely with the United States in what the two sides long called a "strategic partnership" that has stretched over half a century.

But relations between Turkey and the United States have become less stable and less predictable ever since the Turkish parliament refused three years ago to permit U.S. troops to use southern Turkey as a staging ground for a second front against Saddam Hussein's forces in northern Iraq.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq has led to strong anti-U.S. sentiment in Turkey. Yet the two countries have been making a concerted effort to patch up their differences.

U.S. officials stress that Secretary Rice's visit demonstrates the importance Washington continues to place on relations with Turkey.

"Secretary Rice's visit to Ankara is a very clear reaffirmation of Turkey's importance to the United States not only as a NATO ally but as a partner in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and the broader Middle East," said Joseph Pennington, the spokesman of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara.

U.S. officials acknowledge that Turkey has played a constructive role, especially in helping persuade Iraq's Sunni minority not to boycott nationwide elections held in January this year.

Asli Aydintasbas is the Ankara bureau chief for the mass circulation daily newspaper Sabah. A veteran observer of U.S.-Turkish relations, Aydintasbas says Turkey embodies the kind of political and social system that Washington would like to see introduced throughout the Islamic world.

"There really isn't a second Turkey, a country that is Muslim but secular, Muslim but democratic but parliamentary, where Islamists are in power but they can co-exist with human rights, democracy, rule of law etc.," she said.

But some analysts question to what extent Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party can see eye to eye with Washington, especially on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on Iran.

Turkey upset its main regional ally - Israel - when it received senior leaders of the militant Islamic group Hamas, even before they formed a government after winning elections in Palestine in February. Officials from the European Union that Turkey is seeking to join were also critical of the move, saying Hamas needs to renounce violence as a precondition for establishing ties with the international community.

Secretary Rice is widely expected to raise the Hamas issue with Prime Minister Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan, in turn, is expected to express Turkey's mounting frustration with the United States over its refusal to take military action against separatist Kurdish rebels based Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

The U.S. government maintains that it cannot afford to open a second front against the rebels when its troops are fighting insurgents in the central and southern Iraq.

The Kurdish rebel group known as the PKK has stepped up attacks against Turkish security forces in recent months and Turkey's chief of general staff, General Hilmi Ozkok, asserted Sunday that, if need be, Turkey would pursue the rebels across the border into Iraq .

Iraq's President, Jalal Talabani, who is also the leader of one of the main Kurdish factions governing northern Iraq warned against a Turkish incursion Sunday saying Washington would also be opposed to any such move because this would only further destabilize Iraq. Kurdish officials predict this message is likely to be repeated by Secretary Rice when she meets Turkish leaders Tuesday.