Turkey has been at the center of planning for a possible war with Iraq, as it installed a new Islam-based government, grappled with the Kurdish issue and maneuvered for candidacy for the EU.

Tayyib Erdogan, chairman of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, which came to power in the November 3 elections, brims with energy and confidence when asked about Turkey's future. During a recent interview with VOA he described his vision of this officially secular and predominantly Muslim nation of 70 million.

"Turkey", he said, "is pivotally placed at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia and, with its young and dynamic population, western style democracy and free market economy, can serve as a role model for the rest of the Islamic world."

Turkey is the NATO military alliance's sole Muslim member. The country played a key role in the 1991 Gulf War when it opened its bases to U.S. military aircraft staging bombing raids against Iraqi targets and is widely expected to do again in another possible war against Iraq.

Defining Turkey's role in another conflict with its southern neighbor is among the toughest challenges facing Mr. Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan recently stated that his government might hold a referendum on whether to take part in a war.

Opinion polls consistently show that a majority of Turks are against military action against Iraq. Many fear that it would have a devastating impact on Turkey's sluggish economy, just as it is beginning to show signs of recovery. Aydin Engin, a prominent left-wing journalist and anti-war activist, said that Turkey's participation in a war against Iraq could also strengthen radical Islamist groups, which remain largely marginal.

Mr. Engin adds that Mr. Erdogan's own popularity may be dented if he leads Turkey into war on the side of the United States. He said, although Mr. Erdogan and his fellow Justice and Development Party members disavow their Islamist roots, a fair number of their constituents are devout Muslims who favor closer relations with the Arab world.

Another thorny issue facing Turkey and its new government is the country's four decades long drive to join the European Union. EU leaders at their last summit of the year in Denmark declined to give Turkey a firm date to start membership negotiations. Instead they agreed to review Turkey's membership bid at the end of 2004. If progress on human rights and other conditions set by the EU are met by that date only then can talks begin.

But Turkish leaders argue that they have already achieved sufficient progress on a number of fronts to have earned a set date for such negotiations to begin. They cite the adoption of a set of reforms in August, which included scrapping the death penalty except for crimes in times of war and easing bans on the use of the Kurdish language.

Kemal Kirisci, an expert on EU affairs at Istanbul's Bosphorus University, is one of many analysts here who express concern at the EU's perceived rejection of Turkey. They fear that Turkey's exclusion from Europe could push into new alliances outside the West.

"Then a Turkey that is left out on the loose that is on the edges of a Western democratic community is licking its wounds and as it does that becomes more and more resentful of the European Union and maybe part of that process may spill over into Greek-Turkish relations, depending on where the Cyprus issue ends up going and that, in turn, can bite into Turkish-U.S. relations," Mr. Kirisci said.

Some Turks, however, argue that the European Union is justified in saying that the government has been slow to implement many of the new reforms. Yilmaz Ensaroglu, the chairman of a prominent human rights group called Mazlumder is one of them.

Mr. Ensaroglu is especially critical of the government's policies towards Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds. Mr. Ensaroglu points out that, while bans on broadcasting in Kurdish and teaching it as a foreign language have been eased, many Kurds continue to be prosecuted for giving their children Kurdish names and for even playing Kurdish songs.

Investment in the Kurdish-dominated provinces has also remained low despite government pledges to inject massive funds into the poverty stricken region.

Part of VOA's yearend series