Obama praises Turkey, urges Armenia reconciliation
Istanbul — US President Barack Obama, seeking to boost ties with a key Muslim ally, touted Washington’s strong ties with Turkey Monday and tread carefully on neighbouring Armenia’s decades-old genocide claims.
The US president also reiterated his support for Turkey’s bid to join the European Union as he met with the country’s leaders and addressed parliament in his first trip to a mainly Muslim nation since taking office in January.
He urged Turkey and Armenia to move forward in their tentative dialogue to normalise ties and signalled he would not interfere in their dispute over whether the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire was "genocide".
Obama promised during his election campaign to recognise the 1915-1917 killings as genocide, a label Ankara rejects, but avoided using the politically charged word here.
"I want to focus not on my views right now, but on the views of the Turkish and Armenian people," he told a joint press conference with Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul in Ankara.
"I’m not interested in the United States in any way tilting these negotiations one way or another while (the two countries) are having useful negotiations," Obama said.
The US president delivered his message personally to the foreign ministers of Turkey and Armenia later Monday when he met them at a reception in Istanbul — the second leg of his Turkey visit — for guests attending an international forum on bridging divisions between the Islamic World and the West.
Obama "urged them (Ali Bacacan of Turkey and Eduard Nalbandian of Armenia) to complete an agreement with dispatch," a senior US official said on condition of anonymity.
For a second straight day, Obama expressed support for Turkey’s EU ambitions. He had already voiced his backing on Sunday at an EU summit in Prague, drawing opposition from France and Germany.
"Turkey is a critical ally. Turkey is an important part of Europe," Obama said in a speech to the Turkish parliament in Ankara.
"Let me be clear: the United States strongly supports Turkey’s bid to become a member of the European Union," he said. "Turkish membership would broaden and strengthen Europe’s foundation once more."
Obama also expressed desire to consolidate US-Turkish relations which cooled down notably in 2003 after Ankara refused US troops permission to use its territory to invade Iraq from the north.
"I do not think they ever deteriorated so far that we ceased to be friends and allies. What I hope to do is build on what is already a strong foundation," he said at the press conference with Gul.
Turkey and the United States could set an example to the world by building a "model partnership" based on their respect for religious freedom and rule of law, Obama said.
"If we are joined together in delivering that message East and West, to the world, I think we can have an extraordinary impact," he added.
Turkey has been a close ally of the United States in a strategic region between Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East, bordering troubled countries such as Georgia, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
But the country’s Islamist-rooted government has recently given rise to fears that it is drifting away from the West, forging closer ties with Iran, welcoming leaders of the radical Palestinian movement Hamas in Ankara and keeping friendly relations with Sudan.
Obama’s two-day visit to Turkey is largely seen as an effort to keep the country firmly anchored in the West through its NATO membership and its EU bid.
Leftist groups staged demonstrations in several cities to protest Obama’s visit, denouncing US policies in the region as "imperialist."
Demonstrators tore apart an Obama effigy in downtown Ankara, where police detained about 20 people when they attempted to break through a security barricade and march to parliament.