House vote angers Turks

Committee resolution calls killings of Armenians genocide

October 11, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

WASHINGTON -- A House committee voted yesterday to condemn the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey in World War I as an act of genocide, rebuffing an intense campaign by the White House and warnings from Turkey's government that the vote would gravely strain relations with the United States.

The vote by the House Foreign Relations Committee was nonbinding and so largely symbolic, but its consequences could reach far beyond bilateral relations and spill into the war in Iraq.

Turkish officials and lawmakers warned that if the resolution is approved by the full House, they would reconsider supporting the American war effort, which includes permission to ship essential supplies through Turkey and northern Iraq.

Bush appeared on the South Lawn of the White House before the vote and implored the House not to take up the issue, only to have the committee's majority disregard his warning at the end of the day, by a vote of 27 to 21.

"We all deeply regret the tragic suffering of the Armenian people that began in 1915," Mr. Bush said in remarks that, reflecting official American policy, carefully avoided the use of the word genocide. "This resolution is not the right response to these historic mass killings, and its passage would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror."

The resolution, which has quietly moved forward over the last few weeks, provoked a fierce lobbying fight pitting the politically influential Armenian-American community against the Turkish government, which hired equally influential former lawmakers such as Robert Livingston, Republican of Louisiana, and Richard A. Gephardt, the former Democratic House majority leader, who backed a similar resolution when he was in Congress.

Backers of the resolution said congressional action was overdue.

"Despite President George Bush twisting arms and making deals, justice prevailed," said Representative Brad Sherman, Democrat of California and a sponsor of the resolution. "For if we hope to stop future genocides we need to admit to those horrific acts of the past."

The question of what happened to the Armenians in Turkey beginning in 1915 has perennially transfixed Congress and bedeviled presidents of both parties.

When the issue last arose in 2000, a similar resolution also won approval by a House committee, but President Bill Clinton then succeeded in urging a Republican speaker, J. Dennis Hastert, to withdraw the measure before the full House could vote. That time, too, Turkey had warned of canceling arms sales and withdrawing support for American air forces then patrolling northern Iraq under the auspices of the United Nations.

The current speaker, Nancy Pelosi, faced pressure from Democrats - especially colleagues in California, New Jersey and Michigan, with their large Armenian communities - to revive the resolution again after her party gained control of the House and Senate this year. There is Democratic support for the resolution in the Senate, but it is unlikely to move in the months ahead because of a shortage of time and Republican opposition.

Still, the Turkish government has made clear that it would regard House passage alone as a harsh American indictment. The sharply worded Turkish warnings against the resolution, especially threats to cut off support for the American war in Iraq, seemed to embolden some of the resolution's supporters. "If they use this to destabilize our solders in Iraq, well, then shame on them," said Representative Joseph Crowley, a Democrat from New York who voted for it.

In an apparent effort to temper the anger caused by the issue, Democrats said they were considering a parallel resolution that would praise Turkey's close relations with the United States even as it passes the one that blames the forerunner of modern Turkey for one of the worst crimes in history.

Mr. Bush discussed the issue in the White House yesterday morning with his senior national security aides. Speaking by secure video from Baghdad, the senior American officials in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, raised the resolution and warned that its passage could harm the war effort in Iraq, officials said. Appearing outside the West Wing after that meeting, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates noted that about 70 percent of all air cargo sent to Iraq passes through or comes from Turkey, as does 30 percent of the fuel and virtually all the new armored vehicles designed to withstand mines and bombs.

"They believe clearly that access to airfields and to the roads and so on in Turkey would be very much put at risk if this resolution passes and the Turks react as strongly as we believe they will," Gates said, referring to Petraeus and Crocker's remarks.

Turkey severed military ties with France after its parliament voted in 2006 to make the denial of Armenian genocide a crime.

As the House committee prepared to vote, officials from Bush himself to the American ambassador to Turkey, Ross Wilson, cajoled lawmakers by telephone.

Representative Mike Pence, a conservative Republican from Indiana who has backed the resolution in the past, said Bush persuaded him to change his position and vote no.

"While this is still the right position," Pence said, referring to the use of "genocide" to describe those events, "it is not the right time."

The House Democratic leadership met yesterday morning with Turkey's ambassador to Washington, Nabi Sensoy, and other Turkish officials who argued against moving ahead with a vote. But Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who now holds Gephardt's old job as majority leader, said he and Pelosi would bring the resolution to the floor before Congress adjourns this year.

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