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Obama arrives in Turkey to strengthen ties

The US president's public backing of Turkey's bid to join the European Union irked France and Germany, but will help boost ties with a key Muslim ally.

By Yigal SchleiferCorrespondent / April 5, 2009

President Barack Obama disembarked Air Force One as he arrived in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, April 5, 2009.

Charles Dharapak/AP


Istanbul, Turkey

After helping broker crisis-averting deals at last week's G-20 meeting in London and the NATO summit in Strasbourg, President Barack Obama helped set off an internal European fight by publicly endorsing the European Union membership bid of Turkey, where he will end his tour.

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Obama's remarks, made at an EU-US summit in Prague on Sunday, were dismissed outright by French leader Nicholas Sarkozy and given a cool reception by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, both of whom have previously expressed their opposition to Turkey becoming a full member of the 27-nation bloc.

On the other hand, observers say Obama's public support for Ankara's EU bid helps him with another challenge: repairing the US's significant – though troubled – strategic alliance with Turkey.

"I think the US clearly understands how important EU membership is for Turkey's economic and political stability, and the message that it would send to the Islamic world," says Cengiz Aktar, director of the European Studies Department at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.

"I think Obama publicly supporting Turkey's membership will be appreciated in Turkey."

'A very rough eight years'

The last eight years have seen Turkey and the United States butt heads on a number of occasions. Turkey opposed the US invasion of Iraq and its parliament refused to pass a 2003 motion that would have allowed American troops to enter Iraq through Turkish soil. Some in Washington, meanwhile, had at times been uncomfortable with Turkey's active reengagement with the Middle East, particularly its growing relations with Syria and Iran.

And during the years of President Bush's administration, the Turkish public's opinion of America reached new lows, with a 2007 survey finding that only nine percent of Turks held a favorable view of their NATO ally, down from 52 percent in 2002.