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Devout Muslim is sworn in as Turkey's new president

President Abdullah Gul visited the mausoleum yesterday of Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. President Abdullah Gul visited the mausoleum yesterday of Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

ISTANBUL -- A devout Muslim won Turkey's presidency yesterday after months of confrontation with the secular establishment, promising to be impartial and praising the idea that Islam and the state should be separate.

Still, in a sign that tension could lie ahead, top generals did not attend the swearing-in ceremony in parliament of Abdullah Gul, their new president and commander in chief. Local media interpreted their absence as a protest against Gul, 56, the former foreign minister in Turkey's Islamic-oriented government.

Gul, who has tried to engineer Turkey's entry into the European Union with sweeping reforms, received a majority of 339 votes in a parliamentary ballot in the capital, Ankara.

The secular opposition had thwarted Gul's earlier bid for the presidency, but his triumph this time was assured by a ruling party that won a second term in general elections last month.

The burly and affable new president was careful to reach out to the many Turks who suspect he has a secret Islamic agenda.

"In democracy, which is a system of rights and liberties, secularism, one of the core principles of our republic, is as much a model that underpins freedom for different lifestyles as it is a rule of social harmony," Gul said. "I will continue my path, in a transparent and fully impartial manner, embracing all my citizens."

Gul, a former practitioner of political Islam who later cast himself as a moderate, vowed to campaign for gender equality and the rule of law, and he said change and diversity are not things to be feared.

"It is imperative for our country that we carry out the political and economic reforms geared toward EU membership more resolutely," he told lawmakers in a nationally televised speech.

He also praised the military as a necessary deterrent and a symbol of independence, a day after the military chief, General Yasar Buyukanit, warned that "centers of evil" were plotting to corrode secular principles crafted nearly a century ago by Turkey's revered founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The military has ousted four governments since 1960, and an initial presidential bid by Gul was derailed over fears that he planned to dilute secular traditions. Some commentators said the generals' failure to show up for Gul's oath-taking was ominous.

"It shows that his presidency is a source of tension from the onset," Rusen Cakir, a leading analyst on political Islam, said on Turkey's private NTV television. "We will need to wait and see if the tension turns into a crisis or whether some kind of harmony is reached."

One of Gul's sons attended the ceremony, but Gul's wife, Hayrunnisa, did not. She wears an Islamic-style headscarf, which is banned in government offices and schools and is viewed by secularists as a troubling symbol of religious fervor. Some who wear the headscarf say the state's restrictions on Islamic attire amount to a curb on freedom of expression.

Turkey's president has the power to veto legislation and official appointments, and Gul has failed to allay secularist fears that he would eagerly approve any initiatives of the government of his close ally, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan said he planned to submit his new Cabinet to Gul today. Erdogan had presented his list earlier this month to outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who said the new president should approve it.

"I hope [Gul's presidency] is beneficial to the country, the people, and the republic," Erdogan said. "God willing, together, shoulder to shoulder, we will carry Turkey forward."

Gul took over the post from Sezer, a staunch secularist, in a low-key ceremony that was closed to the media.

On his way out of the palace, Sezer stopped his car to say goodbye to guards and journalists.

Outside the palace gates, secularists waved Turkish flags, threw flowers at Sezer's vehicle and shouted: "We are proud of you!"

Police prevented two dozen demonstrators who were protesting Gul's election from approaching the palace.

Gul failed to win the presidency in two rounds of voting last week because the ruling Justice and Development Party lacked the two-thirds majority in parliament needed for him to secure the post.

But the party -- which holds 341 of the 550 seats -- had a far easier hurdle yesterday, when only a simple majority was required.

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