ISTANBUL -- A day after Iraq regained sovereignty, President Bush told Turkish university students that adopting democratic reforms in the Mideast does not mean embracing the cultural excesses of American society.
Ending a visit to Turkey for a NATO summit, Bush said the birth of democracy in Iraq is sending a message to the region -- and to Iran and Syria in particular -- that pressure is growing in the Mideast for openness and reform. He challenged leaders in the region to "recognize the direction of the events of the day."
But Bush also acknowledged Muslim concerns that American-style democracy could bring unwanted cultural changes in the region.
"Some people in Muslim cultures identify democracy with the worst of Western popular culture and want no part of it. And I assure them, when I speak about the blessings of liberty, coarse videos and crass commercialism are not what I have in mind," Bush said. "There is nothing incompatible between democratic values and high standards of decency."
Earlier this month, Bush championed an initiative by industrial countries to encourage democratic reforms in the region. Some Middle East leaders derided the initiative as Western interference in domestic affairs at a time when most countries in the region already were angry with the United States over the invasion of Iraq. The Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal gave Mideast governments fresh ammunition to criticize America's professed commitment to human rights and democratic values.
Speaking at Turkey's Galatasaray University, Bush praised his host country, Turkey, as a model of what freedom and tolerance can bring. And he repeated his call for Turkey to be admitted to the European Union, a position that had drawn a sharp rebuke from President Jacques Chirac of France the day before.
"America believes that as a European power Turkey belongs in the European Union," Bush said. "Your membership would also be a crucial advance in relations between the Muslim world and the West, because you are part of both. Including Turkey in the EU would prove that Europe is not the exclusive club of a single religion, and it would expose the 'clash of civilizations' as a passing myth of history."
Bush spoke just hours after an explosion at Istanbul's airport injured three workers. The president was scheduled to leave Istanbul from a different terminal, and police said they were not certain whether the blast was caused by a bomb.
Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said reports of the explosion caused no changes in the president's travel schedule that he knew about.
In both Ankara and Istanbul, thousands had protested Bush's first visit to Turkey, and, after three Turkish workers were kidnapped in Iraq and threatened with death, anti-US feeling seemed likely to rise still higher. Local television and newspapers had carried extensive coverage of the hostages, who were to be killed by yesterday if the demands of their captors had not been met.
But suspected terrorists linked with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi released the three Turks yesterday, news that was greeted with elation.
"Our citizens have been released," Turkey's foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, said on local television. "We've struggled a lot for their release."
The Al-Jazeera television network reported that the suspected terrorist group released the men, all Muslims. "For the sake of you, our brothers, and Muslims of the people of Turkey, we will release these hostages and send them safely home," Al-Jazeera said the group announced.
Turkey's defense minister, Vecdi Gonul, had said his country would not negotiate with the terrorists.
In his speech at Galatasaray, Bush noted Turkey's struggles against terrorism.
"You've heard the sirens and witnessed the carnage and mourned the dead," Bush said. "The Turkish people have grieved, but your nation is showing how terrorist violence will be overcome -- with courage and with a firm resolve to defend your just and tolerant society."
Bush administration officials had worked hard to reduce expectations for the NATO summit, saying repeatedly that they did not expect it to produce an agreement calling for other NATO members to send more troops to Iraq.
Indeed, no such agreement was made, though NATO did issue a statement of support for Iraq and pledging to help the interim government meet its security needs. The statement included no specifics on what that support would include.
NATO leaders agreed to end the group's decade-old peacekeeping mission in Bosnia at the end of this year, when it will turn those duties over to the EU.
And the summit also produced an agreement to expand the NATO peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan by 3,000 troops, bringing the total number of NATO troops in the country to about 8,700. The primary goal would be to make sure Afghanistan's elections, scheduled for September, can be held safely.
Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, made a personal appeal for NATO leaders to send the troops immediately.
"Please hurry," said Karzai, whose nation is still seized by violence and whose government's reach does not extend far from Kabul, the capital.
"The Afghan people have trust in the security that you are going to provide for us, but the Afghan people need that security today and not tomorrow," Karzai said. "Come sooner than September and provide the Afghan men and women with a chance to vote freely without fear, without coercion."
Karzai told NATO leaders the troops would help his country deal with many problems.
"The reason we need this is that we have three challenges still in our country," he said. "First, the challenge of terrorism, as you are all aware. Second is the challenge of private militias. Third is the challenge of narcotics."
Bush pointed to NATO's presence in Afghanistan and noted that it's the first time the security organization has operated beyond Europe.
Administration officials have pressed their NATO allies, most notably a reluctant France, to extend the reach of the organization so it can be involved in the fight against terrorism.
Chirac on Monday reiterated his view that the organization should not get involved in Iraq.
Yesterday, however, Bush said NATO is undergoing a crucial transformation.
"For most of its history, NATO existed to deter aggression from a powerful army at the heart of Europe," Bush said. "In this century, NATO looks outward to new threats that gather in secret and bring sudden violence to peaceful cities. We face terrorist networks that rejoice when parents bury their murdered children or rejoice when bound men plead for their lives."
Bush said NATO must continue to transform itself.
"The dangers are in plain sight," he said. "The only question is whether we will confront them or look away and pay a terrible cost."
Bush said prejudice fans the flames of hatred and violence.
"When some in my country speak in an ill-informed and insulting manner about the Muslim faith, their words are heard abroad and do great harm to our cause in the Middle East," Bush said.
"When some in the Muslim world incite hatred and murder with conspiracy theories and propaganda, their words are also heard by a generation of young Muslims who need truth and hope, not lies and anger," he said.
Wire service material was used in this report.