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Michele Kelemen reports on President Bush's meeting with Turkey's prime minister on Morning Edition

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Turkey to Seek U.S. Help in Border Conflict


Turkey to Seek U.S. Help in Border Conflict

Michele Kelemen reports on President Bush's meeting with Turkey's prime minister on Morning Edition

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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President Bush hosts Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is expected to press for help in stopping Kurds in northern Iraq from further cross border attacks. The Turks have threatened to send in troops. But so far, Ankara has heeded U.S. calls for restraint.


President Bush today hosts the prime minister of Turkey at the White House. There's a lot at stake in that meeting between Mr. Bush and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey is a major strategic ally and it wants U.S. help to put a stop attacks by a separatist Kurdish group in northern Iraq known as the PKK. The PKK has mounted deadly cross-border raids from northern Iraq, into Turkey, and the Turks have threatened to respond by sending troops after the PKK. So far, Turkey has heeded U.S. calls for restraint.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: A former U.S. ambassador to Turkey says all you have to do is look at a map and review recent history to see how important Turkey is to the U.S. these days. It's next door to Iraq and a key player in the Middle East. And Ambassador Mark Parris, now with the Brookings Institution, says the Bush administration has failed to nurture this relationship.

Mr. MARK PARRIS (Visiting Fellow and Director, Brookings Institution): For strategic partnerships, as we used to call our relationship with Turkey, to work, it's got to be a two-way street. And, I think, what you've seen over the past few years is the Turkish side has had very little to show in terms of what their strategic partner in Washington has done for them.

KELEMEN: The strong Cold War alliance has been in free fall, he says, and the war in Iraq is what pushed it over the edge. The big issue now is what the U.S. will do about the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, which is based in northern Iraq and has been launching deadly attacks against Turkey. Parris says the U.S. has never done enough to deal with the PKK.

Mr. PARRIS: There's no question it has its hands full and there's no question either this would have been a lot easier to do when we still had the advantages of Shock and Awe working for us in 2003. We did move against terrorist groups in northern Iraq associated with al-Qaida during those years. We didn't move against the PKK and then that's never been adequately explained, certainly not to the Turks.

KELEMEN: In the run-up to today's White House meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Ankara to reassure the Turks that the U.S. is working with Iraqi officials, and more importantly, pressing Iraqi Kurds to deal with the PKK. She again urged Turkey, which is poised to invade northern Iraq, to continue to exercise restraint.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Secretary of State): I affirm that we have a common enemy, that we must find a way to take effective action so that Turkey will not suffer from terrorist attacks. That is destabilizing for Iraq - it is a problem, therefore, of security for the United States and Turkey, and we will work together and to achieve our goals.

KELEMEN: But Turkey's ambassador to Washington Nabi Sensoy says his prime minister is coming here looking for a clear action plan and wants to see much more U.S. pressure on the regional government in northern Iraq to shut down PKK camps and stop all logistical support.

Ambassador NABI SENSOY (Ambassador to Washington, Turkey): The Turkish people have run out of patience. The Turkish government has shown remarkable restraint. And now we have come to the point where words are not important anymore. We need concrete steps.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Sensoy says the Turkish people expect that from an ally like the U.S. especially given, as he put it, Turkey's time-tested relationship with Washington.

Ambassador SENSOY: But still we're friends and allies and we do act as such in a large spectrum, starting from the Balkans all the way to central Asia and Afghanistan, and all that. So it has been a very good relationship and that is why the Turkish people expect more from the United States of America in its fight against terrorism.

KELEMEN: With expectations running high, Mark Parris, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, calls today's meeting a high stakes one for both President Bush and Prime Minister Erdogan.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You can read the profile of the prime minister of Turkey at

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Erdogan Rules over Turkey's Deepest Divide

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 62nd session of the United Nations General Assembly. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

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Mario Tama/Getty Images

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 62nd session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is known as one of the most popular politicians in Turkey. Yet he represents the country's deepest divide — the question of whether the Turkish state is to be predominantly Muslim or secular.

Erdogan rose in politics through a secession of religious parties, each of which was eventually banned by Turkey's powerful military for violating secular principles. He is currently the leader of the Justice and Development Party, which denies any religious agenda.

"He says his party is not Islamist; it's conservative democrat," says Bulent Aliriza, the director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Opponents say he's a fundamentalist who will ultimately try to turn Turkey to sharia (Muslim religious) law."

Religious vs. Secular Rule

Aliriza says it's difficult for Americans to understand the vehemence of Turkish feelings about religion in politics versus secular rule.

Until 1922, Turkey was the center of the declining Ottoman Empire, whose ruler, the sultan, was also the caliph, the leader of the Islamic community. Modern Turkey was envisioned as the antithesis of that, a democratic secular state that would foster social equality. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the nation's founder, was an Army commander, and the powerful Turkish army has remained the champion of secularism.

Sam Brannen, another expert on the region, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says critics believe Erdogan may eventually reveal himself as someone who wants to do away with Ataturk's secular vision. Brannen adds, though, that the prime minister has now "become so much a part of the secular institution that a religious agenda would undermine his own power."

Aliriza says Erdogan is a practical man, and there's one symbol that expresses where Erdogan has evolved in his thinking about religion and the state: it's the headscarf worn by devout Muslim women.

Challenges on the Road

As part of the effort to keep Turkey secular, the headscarf is banned in Turkish universities and it's frowned upon at state functions. Erdogan's wife, Emine, wears a headscarf, as do his two daughters who attended universities in the United States.

Aliriza says that, technically, Erdogan has the authority and the votes in parliament to change the law and allow headscarves in Turkish universities, but that would place him in direct confrontation with the military.

"Why hasn't he done it? You have to say that the man has adjusted to certain realities, and he refrains from doing things that he otherwise would have done," Aliriza says.

Despite Erdogan's practicality, though, Brannen says the prime minister is in a precarious position. He has staked a lot on bringing Turkey into the European Union, only to see France and Britain elect leaders who are not friendly to Turkey's bid for membership.

Erdogan is also facing a showdown with the PKK, the Kurdish guerrilla group that has been staging attacks on Turkish forces in southeastern Turkey from bases in northern Iraq. He'll need to work closely with the military to keep its commanders from going too far.

Many of Erdogan's supporters think he is tough enough and popular enough to hold his own.

The Early Days

Erdogan spent his childhood in a port town on the Black Sea, and his teenage years working his way through school by selling bread on the street in a tough neighborhood of Istanbul. He played semi-professional soccer for a club in the neighborhood for 16 years.

He was a transport worker in Istanbul and held other city jobs as he worked his way up in local politics. Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, and developed a reputation as an effective administrator, credited with building up the city's infrastructure and beautifying it, as well.

In 1998, he was convicted for reciting a poem that allegedly "incited religious hatred." Brannon says it was actually not an Islamist but a nationalist poem, but it stressed both faith and homeland. Erdogan served four months of a 10-month sentence.

That conviction proved to be a problem in 2002, when Erdogan's Justice and Development Party won a majority in the National Assembly. The conviction meant Erdogan was prohibited from running for parliament, and the constitution had to be changed to allow him to win a seat and take his place as prime minister.

Relationship with the United States

Brannen says Erdogan has more than just the Kurdish guerrilla issue to bring up with the U.S. government. He says Turkey wants more recognition for its contributions to the NATO peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. It also wants to know what Turkey would get in return if it complies with U.S. requests to cut ties with Iran and cut short contracts with Russia.

"The U.S. has promised Turkey a lot in the past," Brannen says, "but delivered very little. The trust is broken."

If talks don't work out between President Bush and Prime Minister Erdogan, Brannen says there's another option.

"The Turks may just decide to wait out this administration," Brannen says.