By William C. Mann

8 Jan 08

WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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."

At a news conference, Gul dismissed any easing of Turkey's military
strikes against the PKK. He said the Iraqi government is not able
to constrain the group as it targets civilians and security forces
in Turkey.

Asked if he and Bush had discussed finding a political solution to
the conflict with the PKK, the Turkish president said, "We did not
discuss this issue in that context and neither would we discuss this
issue in that context."

Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars,
Gul rejected any suggestion that Muslim fundamentalism was on the
rise in Turkey.

"It is not in the mainstream in Turkey," he said. "The young people
are more interested in modernity."

He said Turkey and the United States are partners in Iraq. Asked
about Iran, he said Turkey seeks good relations with countries on
its borders.

Gul's visit to the White House is seen as a major sign of improved
relations between the two 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

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.

Gul also met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. His schedule,
released in Ankara, said he also would meet with 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 left later Tuesday on his first major trip to
the Mideast. He was to stop in Israel, 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 also planned
a brief stop at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, which
he visited in 2003.