Obama's trip next month to include stop in Turkey

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 7, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is expected to cap off a series of meetings in Europe next month with a stop in Turkey, a majority Sunni Muslim nation that straddles Europe and Asia and has a democratic government, diplomatic relations with Israel and ambitions to join the European Union.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to announce Obama's plans on Saturday during her own visit to the country, said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plans hadn't been made public. The official didn't say what city or cities Obama would visit, with whom he'd meet or whether he'd speak publicly, saying the final agenda hadn't been set.

Obama is expected sometime this year and perhaps during his first 100 days as president to deliver a speech in a major Muslim city in an effort to recast U.S. relations with the Islamic world. It wasn't clear, however, whether the Turkey visit had any connection with those plans.

Obama's likely arrival in Turkey appears to coincide with the Second Forum of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, which is to be held on April 6 and 7 in Istanbul.

The forum "seeks to address some of the ongoing tensions and divides across cultures and religions" and examine governance and diversity in the context of globalization, according to the forum's Web site. Last year's forum drew participants from around the world, including the West, but also Egypt, Iran, Indonesia and other Middle Eastern or Muslim countries.

The White House announced earlier this week that Obama would travel from March 31 to April 5 to the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Czech Republic for a series of meetings of the Group of 20 economic powers, NATO and the EU.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials have publicly and privately urged Obama to pick Turkey for the site of his much-anticipated Muslim speech, but have urged him to visit in any case.

A spat between Erdogan and Israeli president Shimon Peres in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, illustrated the complexity of Turkey's relationships with the West.

Erdogan, a critic of Israel's military offensive into Palestinian-controlled Gaza, said that Peres had a guilty conscience and that "you know well how to kill," and walked out angrily after his time expired. The two leaders made up soon after, but Erdogan's angry response won approval from many in Turkey, where political tensions between Islamic and secular forces are ongoing.

Turkey, a NATO member, has diplomatic relations with Israel, but also with Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza, and which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.

Turkey also has relations with Iran and territorial concerns involving the Kurds, an ethnic group that's warily supported the U.S.-backed Iraqi government but claims a homeland that includes Iraqi, Turkish, Iranian and Syrian territory. Although the Turks declined to allow the U.S. 4th Infantry Division to invade Iraq through their territory in 2003, the U.S. has looked to Turkey for help in Afghanistan.

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