ANKARA- U.S. President Barack Obama pledged on Monday to help Turkey resolve its differences with Armenia as the United States sought to strengthen ties with a crucial NATO ally in its war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama, on his first trip to a predominantly Muslim country as president, said the United States was willing to provide further support against Kurdish separatist rebels based in northern Iraq from where they attack Turkish territory.
Obama's visit is a nod to Turkey's regional reach, economic power, diplomatic contacts and status as a secular democracy seeking European Union membership that has accommodated political Islam. It is the last leg of his debut trip on the world stage as president.
I am trying to make a statement about the importance of Turkey not just to the United States but to the world, Obama told a news conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gul.
It is a member of NATO and it is also a majority Muslim nation, unique in that position and as a consequence has insights into a whole host of regional and strategic challenges we may face, he said.
Turkey is a major transit route for U.S. troops and equipment destined for Iraq as well as Afghanistan. As the United States reduces its troops there, Incirlik air force base could play a key role and Obama will discuss this.
Given Turkish activity and credibility in the wider region stretching from Afghanistan to the Middle East, passing over energy transit routes, Obama wants to give new blood to a real strategic partnership with Turkey, said Cengiz Candar, a leading Turkish commentator and Middle East expert.
The U.S.-Turkish relationship suffered in 2003 when Ankara opposed the invasion of Iraq and refused to let U.S. troops deploy on its territory. Turkey has also criticized Washington for allowing Kurdish separatists to be based in northern Iraq.
Obama sought to strike a balance over the issue of the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, a sensitive issue which has poisoned ties between the two allies before.
In his election campaign, Obama pledged to call the killings of the Armenians genocide and a resolution to so designate them was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last month.
My views are on the record and I have not changed those views. What I have been very encouraged by is news that under President Gul's leadership you are seeing a series of negotiations, a process in place between Armenia and Turkey to resolve a whole host of long standing issues including this one, Obama said.
I want to be as encouraging as possible around those negotiations which could bear fruit very quickly, very soon.
Turkey accepts that many Christian Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks during World War One but denies that up to 1.5 million died as a result of systematic genocide.
Turkey will not be the venue for Obama's promised major speech in a Muslim capital but his stop will still be a way to emphasize his message of goodwill to Muslims.
Turkey is thrilled to have President Obama here but some Arab countries must be nervous because Turkey is a particular model for a Muslim country. For regimes further to the East, this sends a signal that they could face challenges, said James Kidner, director of the London-based Coexist Foundation, which aims to foster dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims.
It signals a new approach by the U.S. This is an opportunity for the U.S. to engage much more seriously with the Muslim world, he said.