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Bush Urges Reform in Mideast

Times Staff Writer

Standing at the literal and metaphorical bridge between Europe and Asia, President Bush made an impassioned appeal Tuesday to Islamic nations to discard the past and embrace his vision of a democratic and pluralistic Middle East.

Against the backdrop of the Bosporus Bridge, which links the Asian and European sides of this ancient capital, Bush held up Turkey as an example of a secular and democratic Muslim state, one he said he hoped Iraq and other Middle Eastern nations would emulate.

“This land has always been important for its geography, here at the meeting place of Europe, Asia and the Middle East,” Bush said. “Now Turkey has assumed even greater historical importance, because of your character as a nation. Turkey is a strong, secular democracy, a majority Muslim society ... a model to others.”

Bush’s speech at the end of the NATO summit here culminated a diplomatic mission to heal rifts with allies over his decision to invade and occupy Iraq. Bush arrived back in Washington on Tuesday night.

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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization agreed to help train Iraq’s armed forces, but France and Germany, which opposed the invasion, disagreed on the amount of support.

Both nations said they would not send military instructors to Iraq and that they would rather train officers outside that country. French President Jacques Chirac said a NATO presence in Iraq would be misunderstood by Iraqis.

Alliance leaders did agree to increase the number of its peacekeepers in Afghanistan and to end their Bosnia-Herzegovina peacekeeping mission by the end of this year.

Bush and his aides have also had limited success in persuading critics, especially those in the Muslim world, to join in his vision of using Iraq as a beachhead to transform the Middle East.

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Because of violence and protests, Bush’s visit -- his last expected major foreign tour before November’s election -- was marked by extraordinary security measures. Shortly before the speech, an explosion aboard a Turkish Airlines plane injured three cleaners at the airport from which Bush’s plane was to depart.

Police said one of the workers picked up a wallet and lost a finger when plastic explosives went off. The other two workers were slightly hurt.

A central theme of Bush’s meetings with Turkish, European Union and NATO leaders was that democracy and Islam were not incompatible.

In a 27-minute speech to community leaders that was billed by White House aides as a major address, Bush apologized to Muslims for Americans who “speak in an ill-informed and insulting manner about the Muslim faith.” Citing the common origins of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, he warned of the danger of those who “incite hatred and murder with conspiracy theories and propaganda,” and he appealed for more tolerance and respect from the Islamic world.

Turks’ reaction to Bush’s speech was split.

“I find his constant reference to Turkey’s Islamic identity and emphasis on religion inappropriate and dangerous,” said Emin Sirin, a pro-secular independent lawmaker.

Cuneyt Ulsever, a columnist for Hurriyet, Turkey’s largest daily newspaper, disagreed: “I think the president’s remarks about religion and democracy were extremely helpful.”

Bush reiterated that he believed Turkey should be admitted to the European Union as part of an effort to better integrate Muslim countries with the West. His repeated comments on the issue have irritated some European allies, who insist that Turkey needs to do more about human rights before it can join the European Union.

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Chirac said Monday that Bush’s comments on the matter were “a bit like if I told the United States how they should manage their relations with Mexico.”

Bush singled out several countries, including Syria and Iran, for criticism. He derided Iran’s leaders as “tired, discredited autocrats [who] are trying to hold back the democratic will of a rising generation.” He also made a veiled reference to Saudi Arabia and other regional allies with repressive regimes.

“Any nation that compromises with violent extremists only emboldens them and invites future violence,” he said.

Bush came to Istanbul to attend a summit of the leaders of NATO’s 26 members and noted that the alliance -- of which Turkey is a member -- had broadened its vision to combat terrorist threats outside Europe.

“In this century, NATO looks outward to new threats that gather in secret and bring sudden violence to peaceful cities,” he said.

Demonstrators bearing placards that said “Bush Go Home” clashed with police in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, about a mile from where the summit site. Police fired tear gas and water cannons at about 1,000 protesters, who pelted them with rocks.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul thanked peace activists who had staged rallies against Bush since his arrival in Turkey on Saturday for their role in helping to secure the release Tuesday of three Turkish hostages in Iraq. The abductors claimed that they were linked to militant Abu Musab Zarqawi.

Citing the protests, the kidnappers freed the Turks after earlier threatening to behead them within 72 hours of their abduction unless Turks pulled out of business deals in Iraq.

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Times special correspondent Amberin Zaman and wire services contributed to this report.


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