WASHINGTON – President Bush pledged Tuesday to help Turkey join the European Union, leaving unspoken his desire to gain access to Turkish military bases for possible war against Iraq.
In a meeting with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of Turkey's new ruling political party, Bush said he would stand "side by side" with Turkey as it seeks EU status. Afterward, Bush told reporters, "My administration is working hard on Turkey's behalf."
Their discussion of Iraq was limited to talks on defusing the conflict through peaceful means, Erdogan said.
Erdogan welcomed Bush's support on the EU, and pointedly said he hopes it doesn't subside. "We are aware of your support on this matter, and are very appreciative of it. But it shouldn't end here. We expect it will continue," Erdogan said in a meeting scheduled solely with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
In a sign of the administration's intensive courting of Turkey's cooperation in any war against Iraq, Bush joined the meeting and the White House invited reporters to listen to the top few minutes. Reporters are not usually admitted to such meetings.
Erdogan also was meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The Bush administration is aggressively courting Turkey because its military bases just north of Iraq could prove vital if Bush wages war against Saddam Hussein.
Turkey, in turn, badly needs Bush's backing in advance of the EU meeting this week to discuss expansion.
Early this year, before the administration began warning it would go to war if Iraq did not disarm, Erdogan visited Washington but met with no senior administration officials.
The support of NATO ally Turkey is crucial to any war against Iraq. Turkey hosts some 50 U.S. aircraft patrolling a no-fly zone over northern Iraq and was a key staging post for U.S. air raids against Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.
Turks overwhelmingly oppose, 83 percent to 13 percent, the use of military facilities in their country in any attack against Iraq, according to a November survey overseen by the Pew Research Center. More than half of Turks polled said they see America's talk of war against Iraq as part of a war against Muslim countries believed to be unfriendly.
At the White House, a senior administration official said it was unlikely Bush or his aides would press Turkey to go beyond last week's preliminary agreement to let U.S. forces use Turkish bases in the event of war with Iraq.
Conversations about using the bases are continuing but not at as high a level, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
During a visit to Turkey by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz last week, Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said his country would let the United States use Turkish military bases for an operation if backed by the United Nations. Yakis later backtracked and said his remarks did not constitute a commitment to a military operation.
Turkey's leaders, including its new government, have expressed skepticism about a military operation, saying it could hurt Turkey's sagging economy or bring instability to the region.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium, this week are supposed to address the touchy issue of giving Turkey a date to start its membership talks.
Turkey's new government has lobbied the EU hard to secure support for its bid to open negotiations, but has criticized a proposal to start talks in 2005 as too late. EU officials say Turkey hasn't implemented enough reforms, particularly in human rights and the military.
Bush supports Turkey's admission to the EU and Turkey's quest for negotiations to begin early. The high-profile meeting with Bush could telegraph that message to the ministers in Brussels.