Hope, Criticism Greet Obama in Turkey
Visit Underscores Critical Role of Secular Nation in Complex Regional Politics

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 6, 2009

ANKARA, Turkey, April 5 -- At the tail end of a maiden overseas trip that has stretched from London to the western fringes of Asia, President Obama arrived here Sunday night amid widespread Turkish hopes for improved relations with the United States, a powerful show of police force and plans for demonstrations against U.S. policies.

Air Force One landed in darkness at this Turkish capital's airport just after 9 p.m. local time. For the first time on his trip, Obama appeared at the plane door without first lady Michelle Obama, who left for Washington after the couple's visit to Prague earlier in the day.

After briefly greeting dignitaries, Obama got into the presidential limousine, adorned with U.S. and Turkish flags, for the 45-minute drive to his downtown hotel.

The high-profile visit to Turkey signaled the critical role Obama hopes Turkey could play in U.S. outreach to the Middle East.

A staunchly secular nation of nearly 77 million Muslims, Turkey is a key player in regional politics, particularly with regard to countries such as Syria and Iran, with which Obama is trying to create openings for dialogue.

Obama has planned meetings with the Turkish president and prime minister, as well as a speech to the Turkish parliament Monday. He is due to arrive Monday evening in Istanbul for visits with key religious leaders and a round-table discussion with students, many of whom will participate via videoconference from Europe and the Middle East.

As Obama arrived Sunday night, police barricaded roads around the round tower of the Sheraton Hotel, where Obama was to stay. Large trucks were parked across the main access road, snipers were posted on rooftops, and police armed with automatic weapons were stationed every few feet.

Turkish attitudes toward the United States tumbled under the Bush administration, falling from 52 percent favorability in 1999-2000 to 12 percent last year, according to the Pew Global Attitudes survey. But the vast majority of Turks in this cheerful, bustling city seemed to eagerly welcome Obama on his first visit as president to a predominantly Muslim country.

Still, police appeared to be taking no chances. Local news media reports said police planned to use electronic jamming equipment to guard against the possibility of radio-controlled explosive devices along Obama's motorcade routes.

In a country that has had strained relations with the United States since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, police will also close many major roads Monday to guard against attacks by Islamic extremists or others.

Sunday afternoon in Kizilay, a busy shopping area often used as a protest site, those planning demonstrations seemed to be largely idealistic young people angry more at "American imperialism" than at Obama.

"We don't have a personal problem with Obama, but Obama represents imperialism, so we are against him," said Kubilay Akcay, 23, a leader of the Public Independence Party, which set up a booth in the Kizilay center where members passed out literature about Latin American revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

Nearby, pasted to a utility pole, was a flier featuring Uncle Sam with Obama's face and the slogan "Yankee Go Home." The poster also featured a shoe stuck on the end of a pole and said, "Obama is coming, prepare your shoes."

It was a reference to an incident last year in Iraq, in which an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at then-President George W. Bush -- an especially insulting gesture in Muslim countries.

"There is no difference between Bush and Obama," said Mustafa Bayyar, 25, who was working the booth with Akcay. "Bush killed people in Iraq. Obama seems to be more moderate, but he has the same ideas. It is the same imperialism, but it has a different face."

Most people who were asked about Obama responded positively and said they welcomed the visit. Still, the streets were littered with anti-NATO and anti-Obama fliers. "Leave NATO -- get rid of the gladiators," one flier said, demanding that Turkey abandon the alliance.

Several promoted protests for Monday, when Obama is scheduled to visit the majestic tomb of Turkish founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and give his address in parliament.

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