Turkey's Eye on the Prize

If Turkey's prime minister could finally succeed in bringing the fifth-largest Muslim nation into the European Union, what a win that would be for moderates in the Islamic world - and what a defeat for religious extremists who back Al Qaeda.

This, then, is the goal that Turkey and its allies should have before them as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes his first official visit this week to the United States.

His luncheon with George Bush Wednesday is an opportunity for the prime minister to repair relations with a president who was ticked off last year when this NATO ally refused to let US troops pass through Turkey on their way to war in Iraq. Mr. Bush could lend critical support to Turkey's EU aspirations.

Mr. Erdogan has wisely begun to mend these frayed ties by at least allowing US troops rotating through Iraq to pass through his country.

As a sign of his commitment to joining Europe's growing club of market-oriented democracies, the prime minister also announced over the weekend that he wants to resume peace talks over the divided island of Cyprus, which the Turkish Cypriots rejected last March. Thirty years ago, Turkey sent troops to the island to protect minority Turks there after Athens backed a Greek Cypriot coup.

With Greek Cyprus scheduled to join the EU on May 1, leaders in Brussels have urged Turkey to quickly solve the "Cyprus problem," as it should. The request - and it should not turn into an ultimatum - is within Turkey's power. Only Ankara recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It still has 30,000 troops there and bankrolls more than 50 percent of the self-declared republic's budget.

If the EU "wants to be an address where civilizations meet," it must accept Turkey, Erdogan told Newsweek this week. With his country as proof that Islam and democracy can coexist, Erdogan appears to be offering Turkey as a cultural bridge.

After terrorist bombings on synagogues in Istanbul last year, for instance, he was the first Turkish prime minister to visit the chief rabbi there. Now he's presenting his country as a peace negotiator between Syria and Israel.

The Erdogan visit will focus on Cyprus and Iraq. The latter is particularly sticky because Ankara worries that the Kurdish minority's push for autonomy there will reignite a bloody Kurdish struggle in Turkey.

The very nature of these issues is difficult, and bound to lead through rough, diplomatic territory. But if all involved can keep the destination - Turkey's integration with the EU - fixed before them, at least they will be able to orient themselves.

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