Obama’s Turkey visit to focus on Iraq, Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — For one of his first foreign visits, President Barack Obama will call on NATO ally Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim country viewed as critical to aiding the U.S. pullout from Iraq, turning around the Afghanistan war and blocking Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The invasion of Iraq has strained the long friendship between the U.S. and Turkey, a Western-style democracy that straddles Europe and the Middle East and has an Islamic-oriented government. Obama’s visit, expected at the end of a European trip in early April, would mark an improvement in ties.

“We share a commitment to democracy, a secular constitution, respect for religious freedom and belief and in free market and a sense of global responsibility,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Saturday in announcing Obama’s plans after meeting with Turkish leaders in the capital.

The visit is “a reflection of the value we place on our friendship with Turkey,” the chief American diplomat said on the last stop of her week-long trip to five countries. The president asked her to make the announcement, she added.

Turkey had advised against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and refused to permit U.S. ground forces to launch elements of the attack from Turkish soil.

In a more cordial atmosphere now, Washington and Ankara are consulting on ways Turkey can help facilitate the withdrawal of U.S.

troops from Iraq. Turkey has said it is ready to serve as an exit route for the Americans. The U.S. air base at Incirlik, Turkey, has been used for transfer of U.S. troops and equipment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We have to discuss what will pass, what kind of equipment,” Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said at a news conference with Clinton.

“We are ready to cooperate.”

Neither Clinton nor the White House would confirm a date for Obama’s visit. But it probably will follow his trip to Europe from March 31 to April 5 that includes a NATO summit and meetings with European Union leaders; Turkey is seeking EU membership. Obama’s only trip since taking office Jan. 20 has been a day visit to Canada.

The announcement drew an immediate question about whether Obama, who has pledged to work to repair America’s reputation worldwide, had settled on Turkey as the site for a promised major speech in a Muslim capital. The answer was no — that will come during a later trip. Speculation has run high that Obama might give it in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic nation and his home for four years as a child.

“We’ve got a unique opportunity to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular. So we need to take advantage of that,” Obama said in a December newspaper interview, though he declined to say whether the speech would happen in his first year.

Obama’s ascension to the White House won cheers around the globe as a sign that America would be more embracing and open to change.

In his Inauguration Day address, the new president said, “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” Obama also gave his first formal television interview as president to the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya network.

Before Obama sees NATO leaders, his national security council plans to finish an Afghanistan policy review. The manner in which that policy is announced is expected to be packaged with direct outreach to the Muslim world.

The U.S. has about 38,000 troops in Afghanistan and is the largest contributor to a joint NATO force. NATO also has about 30,000 non-U.S. troops there.

The war effort in Afghanistan has deteriorated the past two years as the Taliban and extremist insurgency has gained strength and U.S. and allied casualties have increased. Obama has approved sending an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan this spring and summer, but he also has emphasized the need to have a broader, unified international approach to the war.

The Turks think the U.S. should put more focus on expanding and improving the Afghan security forces and on pressing Afghan authorities to reconcile with elements of the Islamic insurgency, rather than on putting tens of thousands more U.S. troops.

Incirlik could take on a greater role following Kyrgyzstan’s recent order that the U.S. vacate on air base on its territory that is a transit point for 15,000 troops and 500 tons of cargo each month to and from Afghanistan.

Obama answered “no” when asked in a New York Times interview Friday whether the war was being won and raised the possibility of reconciliation with elements of the Taliban.

On Iran, which shares a border with Turkey, the Obama administration has raised the prospect of diplomatic engagement as part of a new direction in U.S. foreign policy. But a chief source of friction is Iran’s nuclear policy. The U.S. and other countries believe the program is intended to produce weapons; the Iranians say it is designed for civilian energy production.Yet during her trip, Clinton accused Iran of seeking to “intimidate as far as they think their voice can reach.”

Turkey supports Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful use but wants Tehran to be transparent about its nuclear program and favors dialogue.

In addition to her talks with Turkish leaders, Clinton appeared on a popular TV talk show that focuses on women’s issues. Several women asked Clinton about Michelle Obama, whom the secretary of state praised as a good role model. None brought up Clinton’s personal life, but one asked her about a comment she made during her swearing-in ceremony at the State Department on Feb. 2 in which she thanked her husband for “a lifetime of — all kinds of experiences.” The woman asked how she coped with those experiences.

Clinton replied that she relied on forgiveness, friends, family and faith.

“I don’t know anybody whose life is smooth sailing. If you meet such a person I’d like to know him because I’ve lived a long time and I’ve yet to meet such a person,” she said.

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