| Protesters with placards reading “Don’t Come Bush” in Turkish at an anti-Nato rally in Istanbul on Sunday. (Reuters)
Istanbul, June 27 (Reuters): President George W. Bush today praised Turkey’s stabilising role as a secular Muslim democracy in a turbulent region, but thousands of demonstrators marched in anger against his policies in Iraq.
Bush, meeting Turkish leaders ahead of a Nato summit tomorrow and Tuesday, said the alliance’s only Muslim member should be rewarded with a firm start date for talks to join the European Union, a bloc it has been courting for decades.
“I appreciate very much the example your country has set on how to be a Muslim country, at the same time a country which embraces democracy and rule of law and freedom,” he told Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whose government has roots in Islamic politics.
The two countries said they would stand firm in the face of threats by militants in Iraq to behead three Turkish hostages unless Turks stop working with US-led forces there.
Bush, capping improved ties with Ankara after the two fell out over a refusal to let Washington invade Iraq from Turkish soil, was pressured by Erdogan to curb separatist Iraqi Kurds and crack down on Kurds attacking Turkey from northern Iraq.
The warm greeting for Bush in meetings with Erdogan and President Ahmet Necdet Sezer contrasted sharply with the shouts of some 20,000 protesters in Turkey’s business hub Istanbul.
Turkish public opinion remains strongly against the US-led invasion of Iraq. Foreign groups joined trades unionists, Leftist parties and Islamists on the Asian side of Istanbul, far from the summit venue across the Bosphorus strait, in the biggest of a series of protests across Turkey against Bush.
“Get lost Bush, get lost Nato,” the protesters chanted. “Murderer USA get out of West Asia.”
Ranks of police backed by armoured cars and circling helicopters watched on, but no violence was reported. Bush, who was carefully shielded from noisy protests during a US-EU summit in Ireland yesterday, will remain behind a security curtain unprecedented for Turkey.
In a last-minute change of plan underscoring security concerns, Bush and his entourage were helicoptered into central Istanbul from the airport, flying low over the water before landing near the city’s landmark Haghia Sophia basilica.
Bush said the kidnap of the three Turks and the threat yesterday to behead them in 72 hours — a period coinciding with the Nato summit — would not cast a pall over the meeting.
Turkey rejected the militants’ demands, purportedly from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Jama’at al Tawhid and Jihad group which claimed responsibility for beheading an American and a South Korean, saying it would not bow to terrorists.
Turkey has not sent troops to join US-led forces in Iraq, but many Turks work as contractors for the military there.
US plane hit in Iraq
A US C-130 transport plane was hit by gunfire after takeoff from Baghdad airport today and one person aboard was fatally wounded, the US army said.
“While there was no significant damage to the aircraft, one person was wounded which caused the aircraft to divert back to Baghdad International Airport for medical treatment,” US spokesperson Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said. The attack marked the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein that guerrillas mounted a deadly attack on a fixed wing plane taking off from or landing at Baghdad’s airport.