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New Turkish PM Says He Will Maintain Country's Close Western Ties

Turkey's new prime minister, who is from a party with strong Islamic roots, assured the country's western allies Tuesday that his government will retain its close links with the West.

In his first major foreign policy speech since taking over as Prime Minister Monday, Abdullah Gul said during his tenure Turkey will maintain its focus on both its strategic partnership with the United States and its candidacy for European Union membership.

Mr. Gul was speaking at a meeting of the NATO military alliance's Parliamentary Assembly here in Istanbul. Turkey is NATO's only member country with a predominantly Muslim population, and is widely expected to play a key role in any U.S.-led military operation in Iraq.

Securing Turkey's membership of the European Union is a priority of the new government formed by members of the Justice and Development Party that swept to power on its own in the November 3 election. The party was formed last year after many of its founding members broke away from an openly pro-Islamic party that was banned on charges of seeking to introduce Islamic rule. Party leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has since been disavowing his party's Islamic past and says he does not believe in mixing religion with politics.

Still, there is concern over the issue. Turkey's president Ahmet Necdet Sezer blocked the appointment of Mr. Gul's chosen Education Minister Besir Atalay. Mr. Atalay was previously dismissed as dean of a university for activities deemed to be Islamist.

Indeed, Mr. Erdogan, should have normally become the prime minister himself. But he was unable to fill the post because of a prior conviction on charges of seeking to incite religious hatred through a poem he recited in public. Because of that conviction Mr. Erdogan was barred from running for a parliamentary seat. And under Turkish law only elected lawmakers can become prime minister.

Although he holds no office, Mr. Erdogan's influence and control over his party remain uncontested. He played a major role in drawing up Turkey's new cabinet that was approved by the country's president on Monday. And he has been touring European capitals ever since his party's spectacular electoral victory, where he is lobbying EU leaders to give Turkey a firm date to start membership negotiations. He wants the date set when the EU holds its last summit of the year in December. But some European countries say Turkey is too far from meeting EU criteria for a date to be set even for the start of formal negotiations.