ISTANBUL, Turkey – The deadly suicide bombings that hit Istanbul twice in the last week have raised fears that Al Qaeda is targeting Turkey because the country is viewed as a model for moderate Muslim nations.
It also is exactly what the Islamic militants oppose — a secular democracy, closely allied with the West.
Turkey is NATO's only Muslim member, an ally of Israel and a country that has supported Washington in the war against terrorism. It commanded the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan last year and offered peacekeepers for Iraq.
It is also an overwhelmingly Muslim nation that sees its future with the West — the opposite path that Al Qaeda favors.
Those things make it a prime target for Islamic militants, experts say. Officials quickly blamed the bombings last Saturday and Thursday on Al Qaeda or its sympathizers.
"Turkey is a crucial ideological threat to Al Qaeda," said Soner Cagaptay, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (search). "It is a pivotal showcase of the other side of the Muslim world that they hate."
Visiting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw emphasized that point when he said that Istanbul may have been targeted because Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim and "is a successful democracy."
The bombings also highlight the difficult role that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (search) must play.
He comes from a party with deep Islamic roots and leads a predominantly Muslim country. At the same time, he is under suspicion from many members of the staunchly secular — and powerful — military.
Erdogan quickly vowed to fight back against the bombers.
"We shall continue our fight against terrorism with more fervor," the Anatolia news agency quoted him as saying Thursday. "There is no faltering."
The military, which has staged three coups since 1960, reinforced his words. It issued a statement saying that the army would guarantee the country's "unity, peace and welfare" and briefly deployed troops at one of the bombing sites.
On Thursday, a bomber smashed a pickup truck disguised as a food delivery truck into the gate of the British consulate, killing 16, including Consul-General Roger Short.
Another truck bomb exploded in front of the Turkish headquarters of HSBC, the world's second-largest bank, shearing off the white facade of the 18-story building and killing 11 people. Another 450 people were wounded and officials said the death toll was likely to rise.
Turkish investigators said Friday they had made arrests but declined to give any details or say how the suspects were linked to the blasts.
The attacks follow bombings at two synagogues Saturday that killed 23 people.
"Today's attacks on Western targets in Istanbul, coming on the heels of the bombings of the synagogues, confirm that Turkey has been dragged into the front lines of the war between Islamic jihadists and the West," said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (search).
In his remarks, Erdogan hinted at an ideological struggle with Muslim radicals. The attackers "will account for it in both worlds," he said. "They will be damned until eternity."
Opposition leaders have already criticized Erdogan's government, saying it allowed hundreds of extremists to be released from prison under a broad amnesty that was largely aimed at Kurdish rebels but included other militants. Critics said that few Kurdish rebels applied for the amnesty.
Many military officials fear that Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (search) has a secret Islamic agenda. The military's comments, some observers say, were a warning that the government must act more decisively against extremists.
The party "has to show the resolve to crack down against Islamic terrorism," Cagaptay said. "And it has to explain to Turks, and especially its own constituency, that because there is a small group of terrorist Muslims who are killing people, it does not mean that Islam is a terrorist religion."
Istanbul may also have been an easy target because it is a sprawling city with an overwhelmingly Muslim population where radicals can blend in and link up with radical Turkish Islamic groups.
"There are plenty of places to hide and a real Islamist undercurrent," said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst.
"In Sweden or Denmark, say, they would not have the logistics," said Sami Kohen, a columnist for the Milliyet newspaper. "But here there are Turkish groups that have been operating, so they have a good basis for their activities."
The blast comes as the economy is slowly recovering from its worst recession in decades and will likely take an economic toll. Tourism is a huge money maker, and several countries including Britain and the United States already advise against travel to Turkey.
The Istanbul stock exchange tumbled 7 percent before trading was stopped Thursday. The exchange also said that trading was suspended Friday.