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Turkey: A Bridge to the Muslim World?

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ISTANBUL, Turkey -- President Barack Obama's trip to Turkey this week is a milestone.

No other U.S. president has visited the country this early in office. It is also the first time an American president is stopping in a Muslim country as part of an European tour.

It began with the newly-sworn in President's promise on Inauguration Day.

"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward based on mutual interests and mutual respect," Obama said.

Turks Surprised

Less than 100 days later, on the streets of Istanbul, many people are surprised that Obama had Turkey on his mind to keep his promise to reach out to the Muslim world within the first three months of his presidency.

"I'm shocked that he's here," said one passerby. "Especially since most American presidents only visit Turkey much later in their term."

But then again, Turkey is not your typical Muslim country. It is overwhelmingly Muslim, but over the years has managed to delicately balance religious and secular values.

"Turkey is an interesting country in that it has an 80-plus year history of separation of mosque and state," said Mark Parris, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey. "It has a secular set of laws and institutions. It is a member of the West, in terms of being a NATO member and a candidate member of the European Union, and it is also 99 percent Muslim."

Unique Country Is A Bridge To The Muslim World

Turkey's geography is also unique to the region.

"Turkey literally straddles two continents -- Asia on one side, Europe on the other," said Ankara University's Mehmet Kirbasoglu. "We are often seen as a bridge between Europe and the Muslim world."

And this is precisely why analysts believe President Obama's visit is so important. In recent years, Turkey has cultivated ties with some of its neighbors that are today big foreign policy challenges for the United States.

"If you look at the map and look at the countries surrounding it -- Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, all places where vital American interests are involved," Parris explained. "They have been willing to step into some of these breeches in an attempt to try to help some of the bigger countries like ourselves."

Many Turks say they are only too happy to help Washington improve relations with the Muslim world.

"Before, Turks were always hidden behind the Americans, and doing whatever the American administration was telling them," said Turkish analyst Mehmet Ali Birand. "But this time, Turkey's stocks are rising in the international community that's for sure. And it is the Obama visit that's the real example for that."

Will Present Strategy for Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan

Obama will also focus on Iraq and Afghanistan during his two-day visit. Turkey was against the Iraqi invasion and refused to allow American forces into Iraq through Turkey.

Now, the president is hoping to convince the Turks to letting him use the American base at Incirlik to help get troops out of Iraq.

"It's not a given," Parris said. "But I think it is something that could certainly be discussed and probably will be when the president's there."

On the Afghan front, Turkey has some 900 soldiers serving in that theater. Obama will press Turkish leaders along with other NATO countries to send more troops to Afghanistan.

The White House also hopes to use this visit to reboot America's image, especially in the Muslim world.

A recent poll showed that 44 percent of Turks view the U.S. as the biggest threat to their country. Only four percent see America as Turkey's most important friend.

"America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have done great damage to your country's image," one Turk told CBN News. "People are very skeptical about their global intentions."

But that same poll found President Obama's approval rating much higher than his predecessor.

"We are not under any illusions," said Kirasoglu. "It is going to take a lot of time to rebuild America's image in the Muslim world. No single person can do it in a short span of time. It is a very long process."

"President Obama has promised to make a major speech in a Muslim capital, but he won't make that speech here in Turkey. Still, Turks and millions of Muslims around the Muslim world will be watching and listening to see if America's new president can really seek a new way forward with Islam's one billion plus followers.