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VP Cheney to Visit Ankara as US-Turkish Relations Warm

By Dorian Jones
23 March 2008

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to Turkey on Monday comes at a time when relations between the two countries are generally good. As Dorian Jones reports for VOA from Istanbul, Ankara is likely to cooperate with Washington on many of the difficult diplomatic issues confronting the two countries.

Last month Turkish forces entered Iraq, for a week-long operation against the Kurdish insurgents, the PKK. American officials have supported the right of Turkey, a crucial NATO ally, to defeat the PKK, which the United States classifies as a terrorist organization. The United States has also been providing intelligence to the Turks about the insurgents.

Turkish political commentator Mehmet Ali Birand says U.S. support in the fight against the PKK has helped to improve U.S. relations with Turkey.

"Our relations are full of ups and downs and the public opinion changes its minds very quickly. When Washington was against Turkey moving into Northern Iraq they were furious, but once they got the green light to move there then everything has changed. Now I think we are passing a golden period. From that angle Vice President is very important," said Birand.

Political analysts here say Cheney is expected to try to cash in some of this new found good will. They say he will be asking Turkey to send soldiers to Afghanistan to help in the war against the Taliban.

Turkish forces have on two occasions led the peacekeeping operation in Kabul. As NATO's only Muslim member country, analysts say, Turkey has a unique advantage in providing military assistance to another Muslim nation.

Still, political columnist and university professor, Nuray Mert, says sending soldiers to Afghanistan is deeply unpopular in Turkey.

"There are repeated demands for soldiers to be sent to Afghanistan. It's doomed to be an unpopular case in Turkey because after the occupation in Iraq, after what happened there, it's very difficult to sell this argument to anybody , any society on Earth let alone Turkey," she said.

Turkey's own government is split on the issue. Foreign Minister Ali Babacan has said the government keeps an open mind, but the head of the Army, General Yasar Buyukanit, has ruled out sending soldiers to Afghanistan.

Birand says he believes there is room for compromise, as long as other NATO members also send more troops.

"Turkey is reluctant to send more troops because the view in Ankara is, 'why are we sending and not NATO other allies are not sending.' What Ankara wants let's send altogether troops, don't put all the weight on our shoulders," added Birand.

Another key issue on Cheney's agenda, according to some analysts, is Turkey's help in curtailing Iran's nuclear ambitions. The United States and many of its Western allies accuse Iran of building a nuclear bomb, but Iran has repeatedly denied that.

The United States sees Turkey, which neighbors Iran, as a crucial ally in building international support for sanctions against Iran. But Ankara, Turkish observers point out, has strong trade ties with Tehran and relies on Iran for much of its oil and gas.

Despite the dependency on Iran, analyst Soli Ozel says Ankara may, for a price, side with the West.

"It will want to delay to the last moment any type of confrontation with Iran. But at one point it will be asked to choose sides, then that's going to be a very tough period. But ultimately what the decision will be, given the fact current government is a lot closer to Sunni Arab system, and both the Sunni Arabs and Americans want the same thing, they will probably decide on the side of dropping Iran," said Ozal. "But they may want extract a lot of concessions in return."

Despite the difficult issues confronting the two countries, observers predict Cheney on this trip will find a far more cooperative Ankara than the United States found in recent years.

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