(Copyright 2005, AP Online)
By NEDRA PICKLER
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush held up Turkey's democracy as an important example for other Mideast nations Wednesday during an Oval Office meeting with the country's prime minister in which both leaders declared a strong relationship after differences over Iraq.
"We're happy that we were able to confirm that our strategic relationship will move and take place in the future as it has been done in the past," said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Bush thanked Erdogan for Turkey's support in building democracy in Afghanistan and working with the Palestinians to build an independent state.
He said they have "an important strategic relationship."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the two leaders also talked about how to address Turkish Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers Party, holed up in northern Iraq. But Erdogan didn't seem satisfied with Bush's position.
Turkish officials have long blamed the United States for inaction against the rebels, whom Turkey blames for more than 30,000 deaths in Turkey.
McClellan said the United States considers the rebel group to be a terrorist organization. He said the U.S. is committed to getting rid of them along with other terrorists, but that is one of a number of challenges that needs to be resolved in Iraq.
Erdogan told reporters after leaving the White House that although Bush seemed to share his concerns about the threat of the group, he would like more help from the United States to crack down on the rebels.
"We are exchanging information," Erdogan said. "However, we don't think it is sufficient. We want (the cooperation) to be taken further. However, they seem to be focused on getting the Iraqi administration there settled.
"God willing, we will get the support of the coalition forces and of the Iraqi forces for this struggle."
Erdogan said they are getting help from Syria, which is sharing intelligence and handing over rebels. The United States has been at odds with Syria, accusing Damascus of failing to prevent fighters from crossing its border to join the insurgency in Iraq suppressing democracy in Lebanon.
But Erdogan said it's critical to maintain a dialogue with Syria, its neighbor to the south.
"We don't want to push Syria away, we talked about steps we can take to bring them to our line," he said.
Erdogan said he and Bush also discussed plans to reunify Cyprus, a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea that has been divided since 1974 between a Greek Cypriot-controlled south and the Turkish-occupied north. Turkey alone recognizes the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north, and keeps 40,000 troops there.
The issue has become vital for Turkey as it pushes to join the European Union, which already includes the divided island. McClellan said Bush told Erdogan that the United States continues to support Turkey's bid for membership in the EU.
Erdogan said he had discussed the possibility of starting direct flights from the United States to Ercan airport in the Turkish-controlled north. Erdogan said Bush had "given instructions" for officials to look into flights into Ercan to help ease isolation of Turkish Cypriots.
Turkey's relations with the United States showed strain since Ankara refused to allow U.S. troops in the country for the Iraq war. Erdogan's trip to Washington has been seen as a fence-mending visit and both leaders said he also encouraged U.S. investment in Turkey.
Bush said the visit was extensive and that they focused on "foreign policy and shared interests between our countries."
"Turkey's democracy is an important example for the people in the broader Middle East, and I want to thank you for your leadership," Bush said to Erdogan in front of the cameras.