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Clinton: Obama will visit NATO ally Turkey

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton confirms that Turkey will be the Islamic nation that President Barack Obama visits to keep his pledge of going to the Muslim nation in his first 100 days.
U. S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet in Ankara, Turkey, on Saturday.Burhan Ozbilici / AP
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton confirmed Saturday that Turkey will be the Islamic nation that President Barack Obama visits to keep his pledge of going to the Muslim nation in his first 100 days.

Clinton said the visit would come "in the next month or so." It's likely to come at the end of Obama's trip to London, Germany, France and the Czech Republic for the G-20, NATO and US-European Union leader summits in late March and early April.

Turkey is an interesting choice. While 99 percent of Turks are Muslims, one of Kamel Ataturk's reforms in creating the modern Turkey was to make it a secular nation. And it's a nation that is looking West — it wants to join the European Union.

The visit would also be a sign of improvement in a long friendship between two NATO allies that has been strained by the invasion of Iraq and other issues.

"We share a commitment to democracy, a secular constitution, respect for religious freedom and belief and in free market and a sense of global responsibility," Clinton said at a news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan.

Clinton said the visit is "a reflection of the value we place on our friendship with Turkey" and that a date would be set soon. She said the two allies will consult on the safest, most effective way to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. Turkey has said it is ready to serve as an exit route for U.S. troops.

"We have to discuss what will pass, what kind of equipment," Babacan said. "We are ready to cooperate."

Key in U.S. foreign policy on Iran
Turkey is an ally seen as key to resolving several U.S. foreign policy problems, including blocking Iran's nuclear ambitions and turning around the war in Afghanistan.

The southern Incirlik air base has been used for transfer of U.S. troops and equipment to Iraq and to Afghanistan.

Clinton also said talks were under way between two U.S. representatives and Syrian officials in Damascus.

The Obama administration's decision to send Jeffrey Feltman, the top State Department envoy on the Mideast, and Daniel Shapiro from the White House to Syria was the most significant sign yet that it is ready to improve relations with the Syrian government after years of tension.

"We are just at the beginning of exploring the issues that we must discuss between us," Clinton said. "We have not decided on any next steps."

Babacan said Turkey was willing to host more indirect talks between Syria and Israel.

"There have been four rounds of talks between Syria and Israel and we had suspended our mediation during Gaza war, but whenever Syria and Israel are ready and if they ask we can get involved in the process again," Babacan said.

Turks advise engagement with Hamas
A Turkish government official said Clinton told Babacan that the United States was looking to see whether "a new chapter" in relations with Syria was possible. She said the United States would welcome Turkey's contribution to improved ties to Syria. The Turkish official who was present in the meeting spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

Babacan on Saturday reiterated Turkey's position on the need to engage Hamas. Similarly, Turkey urged the United States to engage Iran, the official said. Clinton did not respond but took notes, he said.

Clinton talked with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for nearly two hours at his residence before visiting the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's national founder. Erdogan's office said in a statement that the two discussed bilateral relations, the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan and combatting terrorism.

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