Bush, Erdogan in tight spot

Congress let the cat out of the bag as the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee defied warnings by President George W. Bush with 27-21 to approve a measure describing as genocide the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians early in the last century. The panel sent the resolution to the full House for a vote. Ankara was shaking with a storm of angry reactions from all quarters as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came under pressure to act immediately against the U.S.

Meanwhile there were reports from Washington that the Bush administration will try to soothe Turkish anger... The U.S. administration will now try to pressure Democratic leaders not to schedule a vote, though it is expected to pass.

"Unfortunately, some politicians in the United States have once again sacrificed important matters to petty domestic politics despite all calls to common sense," President Abdullah Gul said after the U.S. vote on the genocide bill.

"This unacceptable decision by the committee, like its predecessors, has no validity or respectability for the Turkish nation."

In a statement, the Turkish government condemned the panel's vote.

"It is not possible to accept such an accusation of a crime which was never committed by the Turkish nation," the statement said.

"It is blatantly obvious that the House Committee on Foreign Affairs does not have a task or function to rewrite history by distorting a matter which specifically concerns the common history of Turks and Armenians."

Hours before the vote, Bush and his top two Cabinet members and other senior officials made last-minute appeals to lawmakers to reject the measure.

"Its passage would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror," Bush said.

In London for a visit Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reiterated his opposition to the resolution, telling reporters that it could harm U.S.-Turkish relations at a time when U.S. forces in Iraq are relying heavily on Turkish permission to use their airspace for U.S. air cargo flights.

The move, however, was welcomed by Armenian President Robert Kocharian who said Thursday his government hoped "this process will lead to a full recognition by the United States of America ... of the genocide."

Following Wednesday's vote, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said he would call the Turkish ambassador to Washington, and that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would talk to Turkish leaders on Thursday.

U.S. diplomats have been quietly preparing Turkish officials for weeks for the likelihood that the resolution would pass, and asking for a muted response.

Burns said the Turks "have not been threatening anything specific" in response to the vote, and that he hopes the "disappointment can be limited to statements."

"The Turkish government leaders know there is a separation of powers in the United States, that today's action was an action by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that this was not an action supported by President Bush and the executive branch of our government," he said.

The Bush administration has expressed concern that the vote could lead to Turkey cutting off crucial supply lines to Iraq. Gates had said ahead of the vote that 70 percent of U.S. air cargo headed for Iraq goes through Turkey, as does about one-third of the fuel used by the U.S. military in Iraq.

"Access to airfields and to the roads and so on in Turkey would very much be put at risk if this resolution passes, and Turkey reacts as strongly as we believe they will," Gates said.

The vote also came as Turkish warplanes and helicopter gunships attacked suspected positions of Kurdish rebels near Iraq on Wednesday, a possible prelude to a cross-border operation that the Bush administration has opposed. The United States, already preoccupied with efforts to stabilize other areas of Iraq, believes that Turkish intervention in the relatively peaceful north could further destabilize the country.

The committee's vote was a triumph for well-organized Armenian-American interest groups who have lobbied Congress for decades to pass a resolution.

Following the debate and vote, which was attended by aging Armenian emigres who lived through the atrocities in what is now Turkey in their youth, the interest groups said they would fight to ensure approval by the full House.

U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson said Thursday he regretted the committee's decision, and said he hoped it would not be passed by the House.

"I sincerely hope the resolution will not be passed and will continue my efforts to convince members of Congress not to approve it," he said.

The Turkish anger over the bill has long prevented a thorough domestic discussion of what happened to a once sizable Armenian population under Ottoman rule.

Armenians say up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in a systematic genocide between 1915-17, before modern Turkey was born in 1923.

Turkey says the killings occurred at a time of civil unrest as the Ottoman Empire was falling apart, and that the numbers are inflated.

Turkey's political leadership and the head of state have told both Bush and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that passing the bill could strain U.S.-Turkey ties, already stretched by Washington's unwillingness to help Ankara crack down on Kurdish rebels holed up in Iraq.

After France voted last year to make it a crime to deny the killings were genocide, the Turkish government ended its military ties with that country.

Many in the United States also fear that a public backlash in Turkey - a key NATO ally - could lead to restrictions on crucial supply routes through Turkey to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the closure of Incirlik, a strategic air base in Turkey used by the U.S. Air Force. ( TNA )

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