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U.S.: Bush Throws Weight Behind Turkey Ahead Of Key EU Decision

U.S. President George W. Bush is lobbying European Union allies ahead of a key decision this week on Turkey's future in the EU. Yesterday, Bush met at the White House with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey's new ruling party.

Washington, 11 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush, pressing European leaders ahead of a major decision this week on Turkey, says America stands "side by side" with Ankara in its bid to join the European Union.

Bush met with Turkish ruling party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House yesterday, launching a major lobbying bid to persuade the European Union to give Ankara a favorable date to begin membership talks at an EU summit that kicks off tomorrow in Copenhagen.

Washington, which views NATO ally Turkey as a strategic bridge to the Islamic world, has long backed Ankara's bid to join the EU in the face of some European critics who argue that for historical, cultural, and human rights reasons, Turkey should never be part of Europe.

America also considers Turkey, which has key military air bases and borders Iraq, a vital part of any military campaign against Baghdad.

Yesterday, Bush intensified U.S. support for Turkey, making a flurry of phone calls to European leaders and appearing before television cameras with Erdogan at the White House. Standing next to the leader of a party with Islamist roots, Bush said, "We join you, side by side, in your desire to become a member of the European Union."

Bush also praised Turkey for being a strategic NATO ally and friend, and congratulated Erdogan for his Justice and Development Party's (AKP) recent election victory and for its "commitment to freedom and democracy."

The U.S. president added that the U.S. looks forward "to working with you to keep the peace" -- a likely allusion to the dispute with Iraq over weapons inspections.

Senior U.S. officials snubbed Erdogan when he visited Washington earlier this year. But since his 3 November election victory, U.S. officials say they have been impressed by Erdogan's strong commitment to economic reform and secular democracy.

Pro-administration analysts also argue that the AKP's victory could be a blessing for U.S. interests. They say if the AKP's rule proves successful, it could set an example of democratic, secular moderation for Islamist-inspired parties around the Muslim world.

Erdogan, who is barred from office because of an earlier conviction for allegedly inciting religious hatred, thanked America and said that joining the EU is the single most important national "modernization project" since Turkey's founding in 1923.

In recent months, Turkey has hurriedly sought to pass far-reaching reforms to improve its human rights record. European critics say Turkey still has a lot more to do, but Erdogan said the drive to join the EU is already forcing Ankara to take big steps. "And this will serve as a great jump-start for democracy, [an] enhancement of democracy. This week is a very important one for us. This is actually a turning point in our history."

In Brussels yesterday, the EU inched closer to granting Turkey a conditional date for membership talks. EU foreign ministers endorsed a plan to begin negotiations with Turkey in July 2005 -- provided Ankara passes a human rights review in late 2004.

But Turkey has called those terms unacceptable. Erdogan accuses the EU of being hypocritical in insisting that Turkey must improve human rights and democracy before it can begin EU membership talks, while other countries that also have not met all of the EU's political criteria have negotiation dates.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer continued the U.S. lobbying effort later yesterday, saying Bush strongly disagrees with those in Europe who oppose Turkey's EU bid for historical reasons. "He thinks it's very important that the EU give consideration to a nation like Turkey -- an Islamic democracy, an emerging country that certainly has made tremendous strides in terms of integration into Europe and to an approach that is compatible with the transparency and the openness of Europe."

Recently, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who is drawing up an EU constitution, said that for historical and cultural reasons, Turkey should never be let into the EU, although he has since softened his remarks.

Bush and Erdogan did not discuss their talks, but Fleischer described them as positive and acknowledged that the two leaders did discuss possible scenarios in a military campaign against Iraq.

Fleischer said Bush sought to allay Turkish fears that an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq could emerge from the chaos of any war and destabilize Ankara's own Kurdish minority. "The president believes that in the event that military action is taken in Iraq, that it is very important that the United States is committed to making certain that Iraq is whole, that there is no division within Iraq."

Erdogan, who asked Bush to keep up his strong support for Turkey's EU bid, later told reporters that he also urged Bush to make another round of phone calls to press European leaders on Ankara's behalf.

Turkey, which says it opposes a war in Iraq but would likely give the U.S. access to its air bases, has asked Washington to provide financial aid to help protect the Turkish economy in the event of military action on Iraq.

The Bush administration is reportedly considering providing Turkey with up to $4 billion over five years in economic aid, as well as some military assistance. Turkey, however, is said to want much more, arguing it has lost up to $40 billion from lost trade with Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.