ANKARA: April 6, 2009. (AFP) Barack Obama on Monday seized upon his first symbolism-laced visit to the Muslim world as US president to declare that the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam.
From the well of the Turkish parliament, Obama warned "you cannot put out fire with flames," arguing that brute force alone could not thwart extremism as he sent a flurry of coded messages throughout the Middle East.
Obama drew on his own biography as the son of a believer as he sought to forge new trust with the Islamic world, and portrayed Turkey as an example of a thriving Muslim nation where faith and democracy could thrive together.
The president said US ties with the Muslim world could not be simply defined by opposition to terrorism, decades into a US struggle with extremism that was sharpened by the September 11 attacks in 2001.
"The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country -- I know, because I am one of them."
Obama also sent a fresh olive branch to Iran, backed dialogue between Israel and Syria and promised a new initiative within months to improve healthcare, education, and trade with the Islamic world.
He also attempted to ease bilateral relations with Turkey that were bruised by former president George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, and portrayed his hosts as a pivotal player in the troubled region.
"The United States is not and never will be at war with Islam," Obama told ranks of seated Turkish members of parliament, in a speech occasionally punctuated by applause.
"We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding... We will be respectful, even when we do not agree," said Obama, promising to unveil specific programs on trade, education and health care in the Muslim world.
In his latest attempt to frame his offer of dialogue with Iran, Obama warned that the country he pointedly referred to as "the Islamic Republic" must choose between its nuclear drive or an embrace by the West.
"Now, Iran's leaders must choose whether they will try to build a weapon or build a better future for their people."
Obama had said during his election campaign he would give an important speech to a major Islamic forum within his first 100 days in office.
Aides said the Turkey trip did not mark the expected address, but would not say when or where it might appear.
Obama also renewed US support for a two-state solution in the Middle East.
"That is a goal that the parties agreed to in the roadmap and at Annapolis. And that is a goal that I will actively pursue as president," he said.
Obama's remarks came after Israel's new Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said last week the 2007 Annapolis document did not bind Israel though he did accept the roadmap as the basis for progress.
Hailing Turkey as a "critical ally", Obama praised Ankara's mediation of indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria, shelved since January when the Jewish state launched a deadly offensive on the Gaza Strip.
The president also voiced robust backing for Turkey's bid to join the European Union, saying Ankara's accession would strengthen Europe.
"Turkey is bound to Europe by more than bridges over the Bosphorous," he said.
"Europe gains by diversity of ethnicity, tradition and faith -- it is not diminished by it. And Turkish membership would broaden and strengthen Europe's foundation once more."
Several European leaders have made clear that they, not the United States will have the final say over Turkey's aspirations.
Earlier, Obama paid homage at the mausoleum of modern Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
He wrote in the official memorial book: "Peace at home, peace in the world," quoting one of Ataturk's most popular sayings.
After a meeting with President Abdullah Gul, Obama called on Turkey and Armenia to "move forward" in fence-mending talks and trod carefully in a dispute about a bloody purge of Armenians a century ago.
He said he had not changed his view that the killings of hundreds of thousands of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire did amount to genocide but insisted that reconciliation between the two neighbours was more important.
Obama was to fly on to Istanbul for the final night of a tour that has also included Britain, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, where he will hold a meeting with local students on Tuesday.