Can Turkey Bridge the Gap between Islam and the West? ; by Improving Ties with Iran and Syria, Turkey Aims to Help Mediate Tensions

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After decades of keeping the Arab and Muslim countries of the Middle East at arm's length, Turkey is trying to strengthen relations with its neighbors while at the same time recasting itself as a mediator in the region.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a speech at the opening of the Arab League summit in Khartoum, Sudan, where Turkey for the first time was given the status of "permanent guest" by the organization.

The prime minister's appearance at the summit - the first time a Turkish leader has done so - is the latest in a string of eyebrow- raising foreign policy moves: In February, a top Hamas official visited the capital, Ankara; soon after, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari made a bridge-building trip; and the Turkish government recently announced that it was planning to host firebrand Shiite Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for an official visit - since put on hold.

While the moves have ruffled feathers from Israel and Iraq to the US and European Union (EU) - which Turkey hopes to join - analysts say these aren't so much blunders as a reflection of a significant change in Turkey's Middle East foreign policy.

"Turkey wants to be a message-bringer from the Islamic world to the West," says Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at Ankara's Middle East Technical University (METU). "The government really believes that it can be a bridge between East and West, and this is the foreign policy."

The Turkish government offered to act as a kind of mediator between the EU and the Islamic world regarding the controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Turkey has also suggested its ties to the West and its improving relations with Iran could help it act as a go-between in the diplomatic crisis over Tehran's disputed nuclear program.

"We have historical links to the region, to the Middle East at large," says a senior Turkish foreign ministry official. "Turkey also has another important quality in this regard, which is that it has relations with everybody [in the region]. We can effectively pass on messages. We have trust on both sides of various conflicts."

But critics warn that this new policy is flawed and carries with it the risk of alienating Turkey's Western allies. The Ankara visit of exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal was strongly denounced by both Israel, the only Middle Eastern country with which Turkey has a military alliance, and by members of US Congress. …