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Rice faces tall order mending fences in Turkey

  • Story Highlights
  • Protesters to Rice: "Go home"
  • Rice has tall order in trying to bolster Turk confidence in U.S.
  • Washington doesn't want Iran to take advantage of souring U.S.-Turkish relations
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By Elise Labott
CNN
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents and producers share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Here, State Department producer Elise Labott offers insights into Condoleezza Rice's trip.

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Turkish protesters throw darts at an image of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Turkey has a dual purpose: convince the Turkish leadership to hold off on a military intervention into northern Iraq and bolster Turkey's confidence in the United States. Both are a tall order.

Warm feelings toward the United States on the streets of Turkey are in short supply, and the welcome mat is not out for Rice. This week, protesters in Ankara threw darts at a photograph of Rice and held signs that read, "Terrorist Rice, take your bloody hands from Turkey" and "Go home Rice."

The slogans reflect a growing disgust in Turkey with the United States for what it sees as a lack of U.S. support concerning the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK, separatist rebels in northern Iraq launching attacks across the border into Turkey. In the last month alone, 47 Turks have been killed, 35 of them soldiers.

Many Turks we've talked to in Istanbul say they don't understand why the United States, which has aggressively fought the war against terror, has not been more helpful in dealing the PKK. The PKK, they say, is the Turkish version of al Qaeda.

Turkey feels it has stood by the United States through thick and thin. In Afghanistan, Turkish troops are helping keep the peace. In eastern Turkey, Incirlik Air Base is used to send 70 percent of air cargo bound for the U.S. military, as well as about one-third of their fuel.

Turkey is trying to help Israelis and Palestinians end the decades-long conflict and, throughout the Middle East, it has shared valuable intelligence with the United States.

Turkey feels betrayed that Washington isn't standing by its close friend in its time of need. Officials tell us they have lost trust in the United States and lost confidence in the U.S.-Turkish alliance.

The relationship between Turkey and the United States has been deteriorating since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Iraq war was so unpopular in Turkey that parliament denied U.S. troops access to Iraq through Turkish soil.

In fact, only 9 percent of Turks have a favorable opinion of the United States, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center.

U.S. power of persuasion in Turkey sank even further last month when a House committee voted to recognize the deaths of close to 1 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 as genocide. Even though the full House didn't vote on the resolution, the incident left a sour taste among Turks at a time the United States can least afford such tensions.

The Turkish public is strongly urging the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to send Turkish forces across the border into Iraq to get the PKK, even if it means further harming the relationship with Washington.

The United States is caught in the middle between Turkey, an important NATO ally,

the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Iraqi Kurds, which have provided relative stability in northern Iraq in an otherwise volatile country.

Washington also wants to avoid Iran using the crisis to further leverage in the region. Iran's foreign minister made a surprise visit to Turkey this week, signaling that it wants to capitalize on the rift between the United States and Turkey. Washington has kept a close and skeptical eye on the growing ties between the two countries, especially a deal Turkey signed last month to buy natural gas from Iran.

This weekend at a conference of Iraq's neighbors and other key Arab states, Rice will bring Turkish and Iraqi leaders together in an attempt to forge a plan for dealing with the PKK. The conference was originally planned to address issues about the future of Iraq and push Arab states to support the U.S. efforts there.

Those issues will be overshadowed by the need avoid a new front in the Iraq war. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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