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Bush Hails Turkey's Secular Muslim Democracy - 2004-06-27

Just days before the handover of power in Iraq, President Bush is in neighboring Turkey for talks with Turkish leaders in Ankara and a NATO summit in Istanbul. Mr. Bush has two goals: to win NATO support for a plan to train Iraqi security forces, and bolster relations with the only Muslim nation in the alliance.

Mr. Bush began his first visit to Turkey in Ankara. It was a day of substance and symbolism.

The president visited the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, known as the father of modern Turkey. Earlier, during talks with the current leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr. Bush said Turkey can serve as a model for other countries in the region.

"I appreciate so very much the example your country has set on how to be a Muslim country and at the same time, a country which embraces democracy and rule of law and freedom," he said.

The president said he wanted to talk to the prime minister about what he called "the neighborhood." It was a reference to Turkey's neighbor to the south, Iraq.

The U.S.-led war in Iraq created tensions between Washington and Ankara. Turkey refused to grant American warplanes access to its air bases during the war. And there is concern here about pushes for autonomy for Iraq's Kurdish minority, since Turkey has a Kurdish population of its own.

There have already been demonstrations surrounding the president's visit, and security in Ankara and Istanbul is very high. Both cities have experienced terrorist bombings in the lead-up to the NATO summit, and tensions have risen with the news that three Turkish workers are being held under a death threat by militants in Iraq.

There has been no direct comment from President Bush on the fate of the Turkish hostages. But a White House spokesman made clear the United States is concerned about their fate, deploring the kidnapping and condemning the captors.

The president has pointed to incidents like this one to bolster his argument for aid to the interim Iraqi government. Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has asked NATO to help train and equip its security forces. Indications are, the Istanbul summit will agree in principle to make arrangements to do that.