updated 1/8/2008 1:04:47 PM ET 2008-01-08T18:04:47

President Bush gave Turkey’s bid to join the European Union a glowing endorsement on Tuesday and called the Islamic nation a “constructive bridge” between the West and the Muslim world, offering a much-needed boost to U.S.-Turkish relations.

“I think Turkey sets a fantastic example for nations around the world to see where it’s possible to have a democracy coexist with a great religion like Islam and that’s important,” he said.

Bush spoke to reporters following a meeting with Turkish President Abdullah Gul. The two appeared together on the South Lawn, where Bush said he supported Turkey’s efforts to fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK rebels, in northern Iraq.

Bush called the PKK an enemy to Turkey, Iraq and “to people who want to live in peace.”

Gul’s visit to the White House is seen as a major sign of improved relations among NATO allies after five years of acrimony over the Iraq war and U.S. policy on Turkey’s fight against Kurdish rebels.

It follows a visit by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan two months ago that resulted in a commitment by Bush to share intelligence on PKK and not to object to Turkish airstrikes against the Kurdish guerrillas’ installations in northern Iraq.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that a key item on Bush’s agenda was encouraging Turkish leaders to pursue a “long-term political solution” to the PKK problem, cooperating with Iraqi leaders who also are concerned about the group’s activities. She said that the U.S. doesn’t have any particular solution or process in mind, but wants to play a constructive role in ending a long-standing dispute.

“We are just going to encourage an open dialogue, which they have had over the past couple of months. And it’s sometimes been in fits and starts, but overall, a good cooperation,” Perino said. “This has been going on for so long that it’s time to try to put a stop to it.”

The PKK has been fighting for two decades to win a Kurdish homeland in Eastern Turkey.

The meeting with the Turkish leader comes as Bush prepared to leave later in the day on his first major trip to the Mideast to try to build momentum for peace in that troubled region.

Gul told reporters at the White House on Tuesday that Turkey would continue to work alongside the United States toward peace, stability and prosperity.

“We share a common vision,” he said.

In the months leading to Erdogan’s Nov. 5 White House appearance, however, U.S.-Turkish relations were at their lowest point in many years.

In 2003, during the buildup to the Iraq war, the Turkish parliament rejected U.S. requests to send troops into Iraq through Turkish territory. And a poll last summer showed just 9 percent of Turks saw the U.S. favorably.

Despite pleas from the Bush administration and personal appeals from Gul, then foreign minister, and other prominent Turks, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a nonbinding resolution last year that described as genocide the World War I-era deaths of Armenians during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey reacted by withdrawing its ambassador from Washington.

Despite the improved situation since the Erdogan-Bush meeting, the situation remains touchy.

“Certainly there is far greater satisfaction in Turkey than there was as late as three months ago,” John Sitilides, chairman of the Southeast Europe Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Monday. “It’s all related to the PKK. Now the United States is seen not as an entity that is holding the Turkish military back but is working with Turkey.”

Still, Sitilides said, Turkey could “respond recklessly” to perceived U.S. mistreatment with grievous results. “There are 150,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq whose well-being would be jeopardized if Turkey decided on an action such as closing off access to the flow of war supplies.”

Gul also met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. His schedule, released in Ankara, said he also would meet with Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday and Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday before flying to New York to meet at the United Nations with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

For his part, Bush leaves later Tuesday on his first major trip to the Mideast, arriving in Israel on Wednesday. He also will stop in the Palestinian-governed West Bank, which he toured in 1998, and make his first visits to Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. He plans a brief stop to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, which he visited in 2003.

Bush’s primary goals for the trip are to try to build momentum for the troubled peace process and encourage broader Arab-Israeli reconciliation. The trip also is intended to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the troubled region and efforts against terrorism.

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