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Turkey welcomes Obama

Nation of Muslims looks forward to improved relations with US.

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Turkey's President Abdullah Gul hold a joint news conference at Cankaya Palace in Ankara, April 6, 2009. Obama's visit on the last leg of an eight-day trip that marks his debut as president on the world stage, is a recognition of the secular but predominantly Muslim country's growing clout and Washington's desire for its help to solve confrontations and conflicts from Iran to Afghanistan. (Jim Young/Reuters)

ISTANBUL — When President Obama arrived in Turkey on Sunday night, to start a symbolic two-day visit that concludes his European tour, he found a nation of Muslims looking forward to the prospect of improved relations with the United States after the tumultuous Bush years.

Ahead of Obama's arrival, several thousand demonstrators staged protests Saturday against the United States and NATO in Ankara and Istanbul. For most Turks, however, his visit is proof of his commitment to serious engagement with the Islamic world and a reflection of the new administration's desire to enhance Turkey’s role in the region.

“Turkey is very proud and happy about him choosing here. We feel that he cares about us, that he thinks Turkey is important,” said Burcu Eke, 27, a consultant at an American firm in Istanbul.

Such engagement could hardly come at a more vital time. The United States needs Turkey’s cooperation — in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as with Iran and efforts to broker Middle East peace.

Obama’s visit to Turkey, the first to a Muslim country since taking office in January, is also a part of a larger “re-branding” of America’s bruised image.

“If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close,” argued Andrew Sullivan in "The Atlantic." “It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.”

So far, Sullivan’s argument seems to be holding up. A recent poll conducted by the Infakto Research Workshop company found that 39% of Turks said they trusted Obama; fewer than 10% said the same of Bush, just double the almost 5% who trusted Osama Bin Laden.

Obama is so popular that a leading Turkish bank is running an ad campaign based on an Obama look-alike and posters of him are plastered on bus stops and walls around the city. In a country known for its skepticism, such widespread popularity is hard to come by.

“We’ve got a unique opportunity to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular. So we need to take advantage of that,” Obama said in a December newspaper interview.

Such approval is important to healing US-Turkish relations. In June, a Pew poll found that out of 47 countries, Turks had the least favorable view of the U.S. As a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Mark Parris, recently expressed it, the Bush administration left US-Turkish relations “worse than he found them”.

Both Washington and Ankara seem ready to start over.

“In the Middle East, the Caucasus, the Balkans and in matters like energy security our positions and priorities are the same. We hope that we will enter a golden age in our co-operation,” said Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan's chief foreign policy adviser, who called Obama's visit "historic."