A Mediterranean island smaller than Connecticut might seem an unlikely candidate for White House attention when other matters - like Iraq - dominate the agenda.
But the Bush administration's efforts to refurbish its diplomatic standing, to mend estranged relations with European allies, and even to navigate the increasingly dangerous political minefield in Iraq, are all echoed in stepped-up US pressure for resolution of what is called "the Cyprus problem."
Secretary of State Colin Powell was to confer Thursday with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on how to advance Mr. Annan's plan for reunification of Cyprus, which has been divided between Greek and Turkish sectors for three decades. The Cyprus issue also figured prominently when President Bush received Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House Wednesday.
A US-promoted deal to reunify Cyprus would allow a united island to enter the European Union on May 1, and would open the door to an Islamic Turkey eventually joining the EU. But beyond that, experts say, sudden US interest in Cyprus exemplifies the administration's desire to show its "we're-all-in-this-together" side in the post-Iraq-war period. It also suggests the weight the White House places on ties with Turkey as a key to stability and reform in the Middle East.
"Turkey, Cyprus, and Iraq are related in a triangulated way that absolutely makes Cyprus a priority for the US because you're hitting the same nationalist and divided-community issues that are factors in Iraq," says Carole O'Leary, a Middle East expert at American University in Washington. "People are well aware that a reunification of Cyprus as a federal state would quickly be seen as a precedent for Iraq."
The US is also exercising its leverage with Turkey, pressing for a Cyprus accord as a way to show the Europeans its diplomatic side and its desire to move beyond last year's falling out over Iraq, says John Hulsman, a US-Europe relations expert at the Heritage Foundation here.
"Both sides [of the Atlantic] have come to the conclusion that the schism was allowed to go too far," he says. "The Bush side realizes there are things we need Europe for and vice versa, so now they're saying, to paraphrase Keith Richards to Mick Jagger when they almost broke up, 'This is bigger than the both of us, baby.' "
The president's White House meeting with the Turkish prime minister came as Vice President Dick Cheney wrapped up what some are calling his "reconciliation tour" of Europe. On a trip that included an audience with Pope John Paul II, who opposed the Iraq war, Mr. Cheney strongly defended the US war but also encouraged the European powers to join the US in building a successful transition in Iraq.
Cyprus is not the only seemingly second-tier global issue that the administration is keenly interested in. Washington continues to press for a peace accord to end the civil conflict in Sudan, site of Africa's longest-running war. But Sudan fits more into a domestic political category, given the interest of US businesses in Sudanese oil and the adoption of Sudan's besieged Christian minority as a cause by Christian groups.
On Iraq, the Cyprus issue is important to the US because it wants Turkey's cooperation in Iraq's political transition. But Turkey wants assurances that the US will not allow an expanded autonomy for Iraq's Kurds, which it fears would fuel separatism among its own Kurdish population. Turkey may also fear that a strong federal solution for Cyprus could prompt Iraqi Kurds to demand the same option, Ms. O'Leary says.
The Annan plan for a reunited Cyprus calls for two autonomous sectors, united by a federal government similar to the way Switzerland unites separate cantons. Bush told Prime Minister Erdogan that the US "ambition" is for a "territorially intact" Iraq, and Erdogan said afterwards that the two countries "share the same views" on "restructuring Iraq."