ANKARA, Turkey – President Barack Obama said Monday he stood by his 2008 assertion that Ottoman Turks carried out widespread killings of Armenians early in the 20th century, finessing the sensitive issue by stopping short of repeating the word "genocide."
"Well, my views are on the record and I have not changed views," Obama said, standing alongside Turkish President Abdullah Gul.
Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks in the years leading up to and during World War I, an event widely viewed by many scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide, claiming the toll has been inflated and the casualties were victims of civil war and unrest.
"The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence," Obama said in a January 2008 statement on his campaign Web site. "America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president."
While not backpedaling from the campaign statement, Obama was careful not to repeat it. Instead, he praised Gul's participation in negotiations between Armenia and Turkey to "resolve a whole host of long-standing issues, including this one."
Obama said he wanted to encourage those talks, not tilt them in favor of one country.
"If they can move forward and deal with a difficult and tragic history, then I think the entire world should encourage that," he said.
Obama's visit is being closely watched by an Islamic world that harbored deep distrust of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
In talks with Gul, and Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Obama hoped to sell his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He should find welcoming ears, given the new U.S. focus on melding troop increases with civilian efforts to better the lives of people in both countries.
Obama recognized past tensions in the U.S.-Turkey relationship, but said things were on the right track now because both countries share common interests and are diverse nations. "We don't consider ourselves Christian, Jewish, Muslim. We consider ourselves a nation bound by a set of ideals and values," Obama said of the United States. "Turkey has similar principals."
Obama's trip to Turkey, his final scheduled country visit, ties together themes of earlier stops. He attended the Group of 20 economic summit in London, celebrated NATO's 60th anniversary in Strasbourg, France, and on Saturday visited the Czech Republic, which included a summit of European Union leaders in Prague.
Turkey is a member of both the G-20 and NATO and is trying to get into the EU with the help of the U.S.
Turkey has the largest army in NATO after the United States. It and tiny Albania, recently admitted, are the only predominantly Muslim members of NATO.
Turkey opposed the war in Iraq in 2003 and U.S. forces were not allowed to go through Turkey to attack Iraq. Now, however, since Obama is withdrawing troops, Turkey has become more cooperative. It is going to be a key country after the U.S. withdrawal in maintaining stability, although it has long had problems with Kurdish militants in north Iraq.
Turkey maintains a small military force in Afghanistan, part of the NATO contingent working with U.S. troops to beat back the resurgent Taliban and deny al-Qaida a safe haven along the largely lawless territory that straddles Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. Turkey's participation carries enormous symbolic importance to the Muslim world because of its presence in the fight against Islamic extremism. Albania, one of the poorest nations in Europe, has a small contingent in Afghanistan.
Turkey has diplomatic leverage with both Pakistan and Afghanistan.