updated 6/29/2004 12:00:58 PM ET 2004-06-29T16:00:58

A day after Iraq’s new interim government claimed power, President Bush said Tuesday that “freedom is the future of the Middle East” and that Islamic countries need not fear the spread of democracy.

Bush cited Turkey as an example of an Islamic country with a secular government that has found a place in the community of democracies.

“In some parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, there is wariness toward democracy, often based on misunderstanding,” the president said. “Some people in Muslim cultures identify democracy with the worst of Western popular culture and want no part of it.”

He made his remarks in a speech before ending a five-day trip to Ireland and Turkey.

Bush said nations attending the NATO summit, which closes here on Tuesday, have agreed to work together with nations of the broader Middle East to fight terrorism, control their borders and aid victims of disaster. But he said more action was needed.

“We must strengthen the ties of trust and good will between ourselves and the peoples of the Middle East,” Bush said. “And trust and good will come more easily when men and women clear their minds and their hearts of suspicion and prejudice and unreasoned fear.”

But Bush’s initiative has been criticized by some Arab leaders, who accuse the United States of trying to export its brand of democracy while not doing enough to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Democratic societies should welcome, not fear, the participation of the faithful,” Bush said.

Pitch for Turkey in European Union
Bush delivered his speech at a state-run university here near the historic Bosporus Bridge that has long linked Europe and Asia. He said Turkey, a democracy with a secular government and the only Muslim nation in NATO, was a model for the region, and he reiterated his backing of Turkey’s desire to join the European Union.

“Including Turkey in the EU would prove that Europe is not the exclusive club of a single religion, and it would expose the ‘clash of civilizations’ as a passing myth of history,” Bush said.

Monday, French President Jacques Chirac said Bush had overstepped by wading into EU’s affairs with his call for Turkey’s admission. Chirac said that Bush commenting on Turkish-EU relations was like a French leader commenting on U.S.-Mexican ties.

NATO’s eastward marchBush’s effort to promote Mideast reform has raised the ire of some Arab nations. Distrust of Bush’s intentions by the Arab world deepened after American troops abused Iraqi prisoners and the president backed Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s announced plan for Israel to withdraw from all Gaza settlements and parts of the West Bank.

The White House says Bush’s initiative is misunderstood. The administration says it’s less a blueprint that seeks to impose an American-style democracy on Arab nations than a collection of ideas to urge reform from the inside out.

Background to democracy push
Bush launched the effort to promote Mideast reforms last year, and sought to advance it this month when he hosted the Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Ga.

The G-8 industrialized nations agreed to push the initiative ahead by helping countries in the region create jobs through expanded trade and other measures; pressing for better education and improved technology in Mideast countries; and by advocating human-rights guarantees and “respect for diversity and pluralism” in those nations.

“I believe that freedom is the future of the Middle East because I believe that freedom is the future of all humanity,” Bush said, continuing his push for reforms while trying to avoid seeming heavy-handed. “The historic achievement of democracy in the broader Middle East will be a victory shared by all.”

In his speech Tuesday, the last stop on a two-day visit to Ankara and Istanbul, Bush also heralded Monday’s transfer of sovereignty in Iraq and NATO’s decision to help train Iraqi security forces.

Yet a spate of recent violence has made clear the dangers that remain in Iraq for the United States.

A roadside bomb detonated Tuesday near a U.S. military convoy in Baghdad, killing three U.S. service members, an Iraqi national guardsman said.

Al-Jazeera television reported Tuesday that Iraqi militants killed an American soldier, Spc. Keith Maupin, who had been held hostage for nearly three months. The report did not say when Maupin was killed.

Militants are also threatening to behead a U.S. Marine, Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, whom they say they kidnapped on Monday.

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