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House Bill on Armenian Genocide Angers Turks

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A House committee has voted to condemn the killing of more than 1 million Armenians in Turkey in World War I, explicitly calling the event "genocide." The Turkish government opposes the resolution — as does the Bush administration, which warns that relations with a key ally could be damaged.

The House Foreign Relations Committee's vote on the 1915 massacre infuriated Turkish officials. It also prompted protests in Ankara, where crowds of people marched on the American embassy.

Turkey's president called the bill unacceptable and accused American politicians of sacrificing big issues for the "petty gains of domestic politics."

And the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement that the country "has been accused of something that never happened in history."

At issue is a bloody period at the end of the Ottoman Empire's reign. Many Turks concede that large numbers of Armenian Christians were killed in that period. But they say that many Ottoman Muslims were killed, as well, and that the Armenians had sided with the invading Russian army.

The issue rose in prominence in 2005, when Turkey's Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk said in an interview, "One million Armenians were killed here and nobody but me dares to talk about it."

Pamuk was then charged with insulting Turkishness and faced possible jail time before the charges were dropped by the court.

The Turkish government has deployed a force of Turkish lawmakers and American lobbyists on Capitol Hill to try to block the non-binding measure that labels those events genocide. But the House vote also underscored the quiet influence of the Armenian-American lobby.

The Bush administration tried every tool at its disposal to dissuade committee members from approving the resolution. President Bush spoke of the consequences of offending the Turkish government in remarks he made on the White House lawn.

"We all deeply regret the tragic suffering of the Armenian people that began in 1915," Bush said. "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."

Earlier, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a similar case to reporters. Rice said the resolution now "would be very problematic for everything we are trying to do in the Middle East."

Gates was more specific. He said top military brass, including Gen. David Petraeus and Adm. William Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, fear a backlash by Turkey could harm the war effort in Iraq.

"About 70 percent of all air cargo going into Iraq comes — goes through Turkey," Gates said. "About a third of the fuel that they consume goes through Turkey or comes from Turkey."

Members of Congress also heard from a half-dozen former secretaries of defense and secretaries of state, all warning of the threat to U.S. national security should the resolution pass.

President Bush also used another tool at his disposal, personally phoning members of the House Foreign Affairs panel and, according to one lawmaker, offering incentives for votes against the measure.

Lawmakers were being squeezed by both sides in the Armenian dispute, however.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited Armenia's top prelate, Karekin II, to deliver Wednesday's opening prayer on the House floor. He spoke of "the solemn burden of history" and "the genocide of the Armenians."

Meanwhile, several members of Turkey's parliament teamed up with three high-powered Washington lobby firms hired by the Turkish government, hoping to beat back support on Capitol Hill for the genocide resolution.

Turkish Parliament member Egemen Bagis said, "It's not worth passing a resolution which might please the Armenian-Americans for a few weeks, but it's going to have a very negative binding effect on Turkish-Armenian relations and Turkish-American relations for many decades to come."

When the subject of restricting access to Turkish airspace or supply routes to northern Iraq came up, Bagis said Turkish authorities might not have a choice in the matter.

"Turkey's a democracy, in a democratic country," Bagis said. "Public pressure does matter, and if the public pressures us to do those things, we will have to consider."

Soon after those comments, the resolution was up for a vote in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Before the vote, chair Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) warned fellow committee members they had a sobering choice to make.

"We have to weigh the desire to express our solidarity with the Armenian people and to condemn this historic nightmare through the use of the word 'genocide,'" Lantos said, "against the risk that it could cause young men and women in the uniform of the United States armed services to pay an even heavier price than they are currently paying."

Some members were clearly torn. Indiana Republican Rep. Mike Pence said there is no question Armenians were victims of genocide. But he said that he had decided to oppose the resolution.

"With American troops in harm's way dependent on critical supply routes available through an alliance that we enjoy with the nation of Turkey," Pence said, "I submit that at this time, this is not the time for this nation to speak on this dark chapter of history."

Others questioned whether Congress should be lecturing Turkey. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) spoke of atrocities committed by the federal government against Native Americans — and the lack of a similar resolution on those events.

"We have got to clean up our own house," Meeks said.

But Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) did not share such doubts, stressing the importance of history.

"It is right for Congress to recognize this genocide, we must do it," Sherman said. "Genocide denial is not just the last step of a genocide, it is the first step in the next genocide."

The resolution passed, 27-21. New Jersey Democrat Rep. Frank Pallone acknowledged it had passed in committee by much larger margins earlier, when members knew the Republican majority would not bring it to the floor.

"The reason that this vote was closer," Pallone said, "was mainly because the opponents realized that this is it, this is going to go to the floor."

Democratic leaders say they expect a full House vote on the resolution before Thanksgiving.

Compiled from NPR reports.