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House panel OKs Armenian genocide measure

A House panel approves a measure recognizing the Ottoman-era killing of Armenians as genocide, despite pressure from the Obama administration and Turkey to drop the matter.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A congressional panel approved a resolution Thursday declaring the Ottoman-era killing of Armenians genocide over protests by Turkey, a NATO ally that is crucial to U.S. interests in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Minutes after the vote, Turkey said it was recalling its ambassador from Washington.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee endorsed the resolution with a 23-22 vote Thursday, even though the Obama administration had urged Congress not to offend Turkey by approving it.

The resolution now goes to the full House, where prospects for passage are uncertain.

Turkey, a NATO ally with a pivotal role for U.S. interests in the Middle East and Afghanistan, has warned that the resolution's approval could jeopardize U.S-Turkish cooperation and set back negotiations aimed at opening the border between Turkey and Armenia.

Armenian American groups have for decades sought congressional affirmation of the killings as genocide.

'Terrible consequences'
Hours before the vote, White House spokesman Mike Hammer said in a statement that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had spoken with the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Democratic Rep. Howard Berman, and indicated that "further Congressional action could impede progress on normalization of relations" between Turkey and Armenia.

Hammer would not elaborate on the details of the conversation.

Still, Berman on Thursday urged fellow members of the committee to pass the resolution.

"The Turks say passing this resolution could have terrible consequences for our bilateral relationship, and indeed perhaps there will be some consequences," Berman said. "But I believe that Turkey values its relations with the United States at least as much as we value our relations with Turkey."

Even if the measure doesn't go beyond the committee, Turkey has warned it could jeopardize U.S-Turkish cooperation and set back negotiations aimed at opening the border between Turkey and Armenia.

Hammer said Obama called Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, on Wednesday to express his appreciation for Turkey's efforts to normalize relations with Armenia. Obama urged Turkey to rapidly ratify a deal reached in October with Armenia that would open the border between the two countries.

The deal must be approved by the Turkish parliament, and Turkish lawmakers have warned that the committee's vote could stall progress.

'Cusp of normalization'
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs suggested the administration was trying to buy time for Turkey's parliament to act.

"Our focus is on continuing to make progress on an issue that has, for almost 100 years, divided two countries," Gibbs said. "Through some very tough diplomatic work by Secretary Clinton, we've made progress. We're on the cusp of normalization."

The Foreign Affairs Committee approved a similar genocide measure in 2007, but it was not brought to the House floor for a vote following intensive pressure by then-President George W. Bush.

Following the 2007 committee vote, Turkey promptly recalled its ambassador, and U.S. officials feared the Turks might cut off American access to a Turkish air base essential to operations in Iraq.

On Thursday, a Turkish official suggested his country could again recall its ambassador to the United States if the congressional panel approves the resolution.

"All options are on the table," the government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she will wait to see the result of the committee vote before deciding whether to bring it up for a vote.

The United States still wants Turkey's support for its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also is pressing Turkey, which holds a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council, to support sanctions against Iran, Turkey's neighbor.

Armenian American groups have for decades sought congressional affirmation of the killings as genocide. Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

In April, Obama failed to brand the killings genocide in an annual White House statement on the day marking Armenian remembrance. Obama said that while he had not changed his personal views, he did not want to upset promising talks between Turkey and Armenia on improving relations and opening their border. Turkey sealed the border in 1993 to protest Armenia's war with neighboring Azerbaijan.

The White House reiterated that Obama's views of the killings had not changed.