President Bush (search) pledged Sunday that he will fight for Turkey to become a member of the European Union, and praised this country as a Muslim nation which embraces democracy and the rule of law.

He held out Turkey (search) as a model for the Middle East as he met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (search) at the start of an official visit to Turkey a day before a summit in Istanbul of the 26-member NATO alliance.

Bush, on his first-ever trip ever to Turkey, ignored reporters' questions about the capture in Iraq of three Turkish workers by supporters of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search), a Jordanian-born terrorist believed to have ties to Al Qaeda, who kidnapped three Turkish workers in Iraq and threatened to behead them within 72 hours.

A White House spokesman, Sean McCormack, said: "We're in close contact with the Turkish government on the issue. It is an awful reminder of the barbaric nature of these terrorists but their acts will not shake the will of free people everywhere."

Bush's visit to Turkey would focus on ways to strenghten NATO (search), which he is pushing to take a greater military role in Iraq.

"I will remind people of this good country that I believe you ought to be given a date by the EU for your eventual acceptance into the EU," he said.

Bush said he and Erdogan would discuss "matters regarding the neighborhood — Iraq and elsewhere."

"I appreciate so very much the example your country has set on how to be a Muslim country and at the same time a country which embraces democracy and rule of law and freedom," Bush said.

During stops in Ankara and Istanbul through Tuesday, Bush hopes his NATO allies will formally agree to train Iraqi security forces.

"Every indication I have now is that NATO is coming together to say that they would be willing to provide police and military training to Iraqi forces," Secretary of State Colin Powell said on CNN.

And the president is hoping his talks with Turkish leaders will smooth America's partnership with the only Muslim nation in the Western alliance.

Distrust of U.S. policy in Iraq reaches from the streets to the halls of government. While politicians here support the war, they worry that if the new government in Baghdad collapses it will destabilize Iraq, Turkey's neighbor to the south.

NATO nations tentatively agreed Saturday to respond to interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's urgent request for military training and equipment. The agreement is expected to be finalized when Bush attends a NATO summit in Istanbul that ends Tuesday, a day before the transfer of political power in Iraq.

The NATO offer would be a boost for the United States, which has sought a wider role by the alliance in Iraq. However, it falls short of earlier U.S. hopes that NATO would deploy troops to help restore order there. Sixteen of the 26 NATO members have individually sent forces to help the U.S.-led coalition.

"NATO has the capability — and I believe the responsibility — to help the Iraqi people defeat the terrorist threat that's facing their country," Bush said Saturday following a U.S.-European Union summit in Ireland. "I hope NATO responds in a positive way because the ultimate success inside of Iraq is going to depend on the ability of the Iraqi citizens to defend themselves."

Bush's meetings on Sunday with Erdogan — their third this year — and later with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer sandwiched a visit to Ataturk's Mausoleum, a national shrine honoring the father of the modern Turkish Republic.

On a blazingly hot, sunny day, Bush and his wife, Laura, walked arm-in-arm behind a three-person military honor guard into the marbled memorial and watched as a wreath of red and white flowers was placed at his tomb.

The Bushes paused and the president reached forward and reaarranged a flower; They bowed their heads in respect before leaving.

Later in the day, Bush flies to Istanbul to meet with religious leaders and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and to attend a dinner with leaders in the alliance.

Bush is widely unpopular here, and his arrival in Ankara was preceded by a series of protests and bomb blasts, including one Thursday that injured three people outside the hotel where he is staying. Another blast that day on an Istanbul bus killed four people and injured 14.

On Saturday, Turkish police fired tear gas as more than 150 left-wing demonstrators hurled rocks and used sticks to try to break down a police barricade.

U.S.-Turkey relations were rocky in the run-up to the war. Turkey's parliament rejected an American request to let tens of thousands of American troops use Turkish bases as a staging point to invade Iraq from the north.