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Clinton faces plethora of issues with Turkey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - On the surface, U.S.-Turkish relations appear stellar, but peel back a layer and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will find a host of bilateral tensions on her visit there next week.

Clinton will make a fleeting trip to NATO member Turkey on March 7, finishing off a weeklong visit to the Middle East and Europe where much of the focus will be on Arab-Israeli peacemaking, in which Ankara is increasingly involved.

There has been a wave of anti-Americanism in Turkey, a Muslim secular, democratic state, particularly following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and many of those tensions linger.

“Once you take off the first layer of paint, there are problems,” said Zeyno Baran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute of U.S.-Turkish relations.

One thorny issue is whether the Obama administration views the 1915 killings of Armenians as genocide committed by Ottoman Turks and how it might deal with any plans in Congress to revive a resolution calling it such.

A Turkish official in Washington said the Armenian issue, which poisoned ties in recent years, would be raised, but Ankara wanted the focus to be on areas of cooperation.

“At this moment, we hope that sound judgment will prevail and they will keep this issue from being further politicized. I think it is susceptible to distortion,” he said.

In 2007, U.S.-Turkish relations plummeted when Congress took up the issue against the wishes of then-President George W. Bush’s administration. Ankara rejects allegations of genocide.

“Strategically, it is important for the United States to have Turkey on its side. A big question is how much of a distraction this Armenian genocide issue will be,” said Turkey expert Samuel Brannen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

President Barack Obama referred to the killings of Armenians as genocide during the 2008 election campaign, a view that could make Clinton’s trip difficult.

Asked about current policy on the Armenian issue, a senior State Department official was noncommittal.

“The administration is very aware about Turkish views on this and is thinking about this issue in light of all the factors. There is more to say, but none at present,” said the official, who refused to be identified.

Baran said if Congress took up the issue, U.S.-Turkish relations would again suffer, and she predicted bilateral ties could be frozen for months, the ambassador recalled and the U.S. Incirlik air base, which is vital to Iraq operations, possibly affected.

MIDDLE EAST ROLE

U.S. officials are playing up Turkey’s important role in the region ahead of Clinton’s trip and highlighting areas where the two can work together, particularly in intelligence sharing to fight Kurdish PKK rebels in the region.

“The bilateral relationship with Turkey has improved but now we have an opportunity to build on that and build a genuine, close strategic partnership,” said senior State Department official Dan Fried.

Clinton wants Turkey to be helpful in convincing its neighbors to allow their territory to become supply routes to Afghanistan, particularly after Kyrgyzstan announced plans to close the U.S. Manas air base, a major transit point for U.S. troops going into Afghanistan.

Turkey is a major player in Arab-Israeli peacemaking and has mediated indirect talks between Syria and the Israelis.

Those talks broke down after Israel’s invasion of Gaza in December but Turkish officials have said they are ready to resume mediation efforts once a new Israeli government is in place following elections this month.

While welcoming Turkish mediation with Syria, the Obama administration differs over how to tackle Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Washington wants to isolate it, while Ankara feels the Islamist group should not be excluded from any major peace agreement.

Despite differences over Hamas, the Obama administration might now find Ankara an invaluable ally if it tries to reach out to Damascus and Tehran and as it engages in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Turkey and Iran share important energy agreements and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Istanbul last year, but Turkey shares Washington’s misgivings about Iran’s nuclear program.

Additional reporting in Ankara by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Peter Cooney

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